While the Escambia County School Board has been weighing its options in transitioning Warrington Middle into a charter, a new contender entered the mix Tuesday night, vying for a say in the school’s fate.
Darreyel Laster, current dean of Warrington Middle School, presented a proposal to the school board to transition Warrington Middle into a grassroots, teacher-driven, student-centered charter that would be named Warrington Community School.
“I moved back home a year and a half ago with the idea that I wanted to start a school,” Laster told the News Journal. “I want to make sure that our students have a place where they can go, and they can feel successful, that cares for them and loves on them.”
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Despite staff efforts, Warrington Middle repeatedly earned “D” school grades over multiple years, resulting in the state’s ultimatum: go the charter route or close the school altogether.
Leading into Tuesday night’s meeting, the board had only one potential suitor, a for-profit charter organization named Charter Schools USA, that expressed interest in transitioning the middle school into a K-8 charter.
Despite the outside of the company’s pursuit of Warrington Middle, Charter Schools USA has refused to commit to a contract with the district until they spend time investigating it in person, which would come at a price to the district. After their visit, they would make a decision on whether they would even like to fill out an application to be selected.
This lack of commitment raised concerns and board members fear it could leave them out of time, out of options and result in the school’s closure.
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If Charter Schools USA does decide to try to revive the school, board members still questioned how transparent the company would be with its spending of district funds, and also its capability in meeting the needs of students unknown to them.
District 2 board member Paul Fetsko noted the alarmingly little communication the company has made with the board on their intentions.
The district, however, has not had the luxury of getting picky with charter candidates, as Smith said the district has had a difficult time attracting charter companies in general. One suitor even deciding to pass after taking a look at the school.
With lack of other options, the board thought the proposed partnership with Charter USA could be the only thing keeping the school open.
‘This is our story.’ Teachers speak out.
Warrington Middle School teachers used a portion of the public forum to express their dissatisfaction with the board’s decision to pursue an outside company to come in and make the changes. Some used their time to make the case that Warrington teachers are the ones who are best equipped to make decisions regarding students they consider family.
“Everybody tells us who we are,” Warrington teacher of nine years, Caleb Lovely, said. “This is our story. Let us tell it. Let us change it. “
Longtime Warrington teacher Brenda Coleman said the state’s requirements placed them in the position they are in and are “void of grace.” She said the people in power are unaware of the circumstances the Warrington children go through on a day-to-day basis.
Therefore it is important to transition the school from the “inside out” using a team who knows the students within it on a personal level, she said. If not, the outcome could carry significant consequences to students.
“God help us if we don’t get this one right,” Coleman told the board.
Laster then presented his proposal before the board, placing his name in the hat to spearhead the transition.
Laster said he has had experience converting schools into charters in Chicago and Indianapolis that were composed of children of similar demographics in the Warrington community. He said this experience is especially important for Warrington because of how historically underserved children in the community have been.
If he were to take the reins in Pensacola, he said he would ensure that teachers work at improving the life of the “whole child,” versus just the state’s academic determination of them.
“I think that one of the most dangerous things that we do in education is make decisions based solely off of student performance on one test, or a series of tests, that are given back-to-back,” he told the News Journal. “In our community in particular, Warrington, where we have high poverty, high-trauma, high transient population… we know that these students need extra things.”
He said teachers currently serving in Warrington Middle have the necessary training to work with students and meet their unique needs.
New proposal stirs up questions
Questions rose among the board on how Laster’s plea, though filled with passion, will measure up against the hefty demands of Florida and the US Department of Education.
District 4 board member Patty Hightower said a proven record of success in flipping charter schools is criteria to receive approval of a charter company.
Ultimately, the board decided to postpone its commitment to paying Charter USA anything while Laster’s proposal is being pursued.
“I am not ready to support this,” Hightower said of Charter USA.
However, Smith was unsure Tuesday whether Laster would meet the criteria to be considered.
“I don’t know what (the state’s) response would be, nor DOE’s,” Smith said.
District 3 board member Laura Edler reminded the board their greatest responsibility is not to appease the higher boards, but to do what is best for students.
“I believe we are making the same mistake,” she cautioned.
The district will be required to approve a charter’s application by January.