About half of Pembroke Pines students attend charter schools. This year's graduating class was the first to go from kindergarten through 12th grade exclusively in the charter system.
When the seniors graduated last month from Pembroke Pines Charter High School in south Broward County, they became the first to make the journey from kindergarten to 12th grade entirely in the city's charter school system. "Our charter starters," says Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis, who doubles as de facto chair of the city-run system's school board.
Founded 13 years ago in reaction to parental concerns over the county district's traditional public schools, Pembroke Pines' charter system now encompasses about half of the city's school-age students, 5,700 students in A-graded schools culminating in a high school with a 98.6% graduation rate and 94% of kids going on to college.
Principals at the five schools run their own shows, answering to City Manager Charles Dodge, who serves as superintendent overseeing 400 full-time school staffers, 83 part-timers and a $50-million budget. City commissioners serve as the school board. City staffers double as school support workers, eliminating the need for a centralized administration and its payroll. "I think that's one of the reasons we have been able to survive on the low level of resources we get compared to the traditional schools," Dodge says.
Not only survive but thrive, as he tells it. The waiting list is 9,000 long for the schools, which are Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredited. "Financially sound, academically challenging and successful, the record speaks to that," he says.
Pembroke Pines has had to deal with falling state funding but has managed to preserve art and music courses even as traditional publics axed them. Parents have to put in 30 hours of volunteer time a year. Even as the Broward district is in the news for spending $8 million for two 10-lane pools for after-school sports that are too deep to teach beginning swimmers, Pembroke Pines has Olympic-size pools that double as community pools.
Other charter school operators say Broward is one of the most receptive counties in Florida, but the view is different in Pembroke Pines. The issue: The district doesn't share enough tax revenue. Pembroke Pines officials point to how many kids the city's charter system has taken off the district's hands. The $100 million the city system spent on school buildings is a fraction, the city believes, of what the district would have spent. Plus, Pines pays a 5% administration fee to the district. But the district doesn't share all the revenue it collects from Pines homeowners.
Few municipalities have followed Pembroke Pines. The list of Florida municipal charter schools includes Palm Bay, Coral Springs, Aventura, Hialeah, Miami Shores, Cape Coral and Oakland (west of Orlando).