Updated 11 months ago
In July, five schools in Lake Wales -- a town of 12,000 nestled among rolling hills, citrus groves and pastures in central Florida -- withdrew from the Polk County School District and formed a charter school system. The schools include 3,500 students at four elementary schools and a high school.
While Pembroke Pines in Broward County created a city charter school system from scratch by building new schools, Lake Wales is the first in the state to convert existing schools into a charter system.
Community leaders, including many in the town's business community, had become frustrated with problems that had mounted for decades. A January 2003 report noted that "public education has become the community's Achilles' heel."
The Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce, which commissioned the report, blamed poor school grades for hampering its efforts to attract businesses. Real estate agents said home sales had declined because parents were reluctant to move to an area with mediocre schools.
And about 17% of 5,000 children left to attend magnet schools and public schools in other areas of the county. Many were among the district's top students.
"I had stewed about this for years," says Robin Gibson, a Lake Wales lawyer and former chairman of the Board of Regents, who led the effort.
To create the system, advocates had to prove to the Polk school district that more than half of the teachers and parents at each school supported the switch. In five of the seven local schools, more than 70% of parents voted for the change. A majority of teachers also signed on.
Leaders set up a line of credit with three local banks to prove they could generate operational funds outside of the state money that the former public schools receive. The system, which has a $24-million budget, also received federal grants of $250,000 for every school for two years. Leaders established a board to run the system, and the Polk County School Board signed off last October.
Each school will have a different emphasis. Some will focus on science and math; others on art and music. High school students can take vocational classes or get medical training through partnerships with local colleges and universities. Gibson says no school will get a disproportionate share of resources.
Other communities, particularly Miami, are interested in converting, Gibson says. But they are waiting to see how the new system works in Lake Wales.
"We have a community that can accomplish anything as long as there's a consensus," says Gibson.