Article published on August 10, 2012 in The Weekly Challenger
ST. PETERSBURG — The Imagine Charter School, a K-8 school in St. Petersburg has some milestones to overcome given its recent grade received by the state accountability system. Despite being among the lowest rated schools in their category, it is a top choice among its parents.
“There seems to be a systemic problem on the county’s south side. We have more schools over here with failing grades. There is a wide divide between south side and north county. Why is that?” said Terrence Tomlin, the school’s marketing and enrollment coordinator.
Their learning methodologies and future plans for improvement are creative and very enlightening.
Tomlin explained that a charter school differs from regular public schools not by the curriculum, but by the delivery of the teaching. It’s a more hands-on approach with more autonomy given to the principal. Creative ideas from parents and students can be considered if they meet the standards, and the staff has more decision-making abilities.
Since its inaugural year in 2008, Imagine has had its share of challenges. One issue started just two weeks before the school opened its doors. The appointed principal suffered a life-threatening medical emergency and never began working at the school.
An interim was named and served three months, but displayed the attitude of a short-timer. The administrative focus didn’t seem to address the school’s vision and the children’s needs.
It is clear to see that the school has struggled because its foundation was never properly set. The mission and vision of the school is just now starting to show.
Currently, the student population is 72 percent African Americans, 18 percent white, five percent Hispanic, and five percent multi-racial.
Principle Angela Prince has been on board since earlier this year, and sees the wheels of progress turning.
During her first year, the school bumped up a grade. With a keen idea of how the school should operate, she leads with a can-do spirit by instilling structure, incentives and positive reinforcement. Her demeanor is warm and compassionate and she gives lots of hugs.
“We get many of the kids who are constantly written up, who sit in the back of the room because they have low self-esteem, and ones who have been labeled and written off mainly because of their behavior. We have to build them up to get them up,” Prince said.
“We have to undo a lot of what has been done. We re-indoctrinate them … make them feel special. Sometimes it is the first time in their lives they are made to feel special.”
Many circumstances can have bearings on a child’s performance. If a child misbehaves in the classroom or appears uninterested, Imagine School seeks to uncover the root cause of the behavior, and takes the time to give different strategies for learning.
Students are praised through various methods such as the “13 stars” program, in which classes are rewarded for things such as good lunchroom behavior or standing straight and quietly in line. Once the class receives 13 stars, they get to choose a treat of their choice. It may be a pizza party or a movie.
Another point Imagine takes seriously is letting the student’s voice be heard. Even if the child is creating the problem, they can be a part of the solution.
The school makes sure that both sides are heard and that the students know that their opinions are valued. The staff works with the students, parents and teachers in getting through some issues. Lessons are learned not only by the student, but also the teacher and the parent.
Imagine has been very good for 6-year-old Kaden Danford, a second grader who enrolled after attending another public school. He said he “loves” Imagine.
Danford was diagnosed with conditions for which he takes medication, but the school works with him and his mom to use different methods to keep him calm and focused if he forgets to take his pill.
Danford’s mother, T’ane Fillyau, said nobody cares about her son like the principal and teachers at Imagine. She is aware of the fact that Imagine is a failing school, but it is the best place for Kaden. He’s happier, he’s doing better and “I’m grateful and happy,” she adds.
Other parents are supportive as well. “My child has had a noticeable increase in her learning ability and desire to be in school since she’s been at Imagine. I know the school has made a positive difference in her academic growth, as well as her character development,” said Roderick Dunson.
Tomlin stresses, “This is a school of choice. There is not a single child at Imagine that is here because they have to be. These students are here because they and their parents want them to be.”
Parental involvement is required at Imagine. The three “T” method is explored: time, talent or treasure. This can be done through meetings, teaching a class (i.e. a craft or foreign language), donations or other approved ideas. Another key component is the mandatory 20 volunteer hours per family per year. “Everybody gets to be a decision maker,” said Prince.
As of May, the Imagine School’s charter was extended for one year by the school board. The “F” grade by the state threatened the school’s shutdown, but Prince says the extension was granted because the school has demonstrated consistent learning gains.
In some instances, Imagine has experienced a three-year trend of improvement at or above many schools in Pinellas County depending on the variables.
Prince said they will appeal the grade and Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores received this past year because the wrong formula was used to calculate learning gains, and the cut-off scores were changed mid-year.
Prince also feels it is worth looking into because the Florida Department of Education recently corrected the scores of 10 percent of the schools tested when they discovered that they had miscalculated FCAT grades of more than 200 schools across the state.
Meanwhile, pre-enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year is up. According to Tomlin, they have registered more than 450 students and expect to reach their capacity of 500. This year their school uniforms will change to a more prep school style with vests, ties and pleated skirts for the girls.
“The way you dress permeates who you are,” said Prince. As the saying goes, if you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you will enjoy more success—a belief shared by both Prince and Tomlin.
Despite the failing grade, they’re optimistic about the future of Imagine, and look forward to continuing to help their students improve.