Florida Keys News
Monday, December 17, 2012
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Key West Collegiate Academy offers choices
Growing pains didn't stop educators from believing in school

The old adage about big things coming in small packages seems tailor-made to fit the Key West Collegiate Academy. This high school, tucked away in a series of rooms leased from the Florida Keys Community College, counts just 46 pupils among its student body, but they sure seem motivated -- and happy to be there.

"We're a lot more hands-on than other schools," said Adri Stewart, who admits to "wearing a lot of other hats" besides those of principal and Spanish teacher.

"So we're able to provide more individual attention to the students. Our class sizes are also much smaller. We focus on what we call 'project-based learning.'"

A spring chicken, as Monroe County schools go, Key West Collegiate is currently teaching its first graduating class. The tuition-free charter school opened its doors to students last fall, but experienced some growing pains early on, as its board members had difficulty reaching consensus on several important issues. Around February the situation was bleak.

Enter John Padget. The former Monroe County superintendent of schools, and current member of the state board of education, reached out to fellow education advocate Todd German for help.

German, who counts several members of the Key West Collegiate board as friends, agreed to "try to get the ship righted." He turned to the Florida Department of Education which, in turn, recommended several educational management companies, including, the Academica Corporation.

In July, Academica sent down a 10-person "task force" of educators and administrators, including Adri Stewart, to clean house, before a contract had even been signed with the school.

Since then, the Key West Collegiate Academy has been firing on all cylinders, with a new format, and a new board chair, in Todd German.

"We went from struggling to thriving overnight," German said. "The school was having some challenges, like any startup would. I was brought in because I had experience as the former chair of the Montessori Charter School. I believe in the charter school movement, and I believe in Key West Collegiate."

The students appear to agree. Well after classes have ended for the day, members of the school's many clubs, such as the Dungeon and Dragons gang, stick around to socialize and work on projects.

The state-of-the-art Edmodo system the school uses connects students, teachers, and of course, Ms. Stewart, together on a Promethean Board, in a social media for education page, where all members can post articles pertinent to their courses, and discuss them in a forum. The system hasn't quite replaced textbooks yet, but as it takes the lessons outside the classroom, it's probably only a matter of time.

"It's a game-changer, said teacher Tom Rompella. "It extends your 50-minute block to however much time the students want to spend on it."

That would be a lot of time.

The students are downright enthused to be attending the school, for more or less the same reasons.

"I've heard about drug problems, fighting, and all the social cliques and drama at Key West High School, all the things that I don't want to put up with," said Damian Jones, who came to Key West Collegiate directly from Sugarloaf Middle School. "With the smaller class sizes, I feel like I'm getting a better education."

His classmate, Robert Tallmadge, who aspires to join the Peace Corps, or volunteer his time in some other way, agrees.

"It's a nice haven for people who aren't motivated to do their work," he said. "At this school, they really push you to succeed."

The facts bear this out.

At Key West High School, Tallmadge had a 1.8 GPA. At KWCA, he's racking up As and Bs.

"There's nothing wrong with the way they teach over there," he said, referring to Key West High School. "It's just that nobody really cares if you come to class or not. I could skip class and still pass."

Chynna Eckard is another former KWHS student, now a sophomore at KWCA.

"The only thing I miss about Key West High is the culinary program, and the teacher who taught it," she said. "Here, I'm getting better prepared for college. I only went there because it was the only option."

It certainly helps that the school's principal is herself a student of education models, who revels in "the dance between content and process" and knows all 46 students inside and out.

Stewart is a former administrator at Somerset Central, in Broward County, which is affiliated with KWCA, as well as dozens of other schools across the state, and in other states, such as Nevada. All Somerset schools share a common vision, a philosophy of high expectations, including mandatory parent volunteer hours, a collaborative managerial infrastructure, a belief that every student can learn, and a determination to think outside the box. As a Somerset affiliate, KWCA students must also wear uniforms, although not on Fridays.

As the relaxing strains of classical music waft through Tom Rompella's classroom, students in his H.O.P.E. (Health Opportunities through Physical Education,) course sit in working groups plotting future public policy about water quality, curfews and more, Stewart talks to the students like a proud mom; stern when necessary, but supportive, encouraging, and above all, settling.

"I wanted to come here to help build this school," said Stewart. "I want to help provide a choice for parents."

And so she has.

Leslie Artigue is actually a grandparent, but she's the one picking up her grandson, Bobby Black, from KWCA in her silver SUV.

"I wanted something better for him," said Artigue, who has family members in several schools in the Monroe County School District. "I love this school. There aren't a lot of distractions, and he's getting the one-on-one that he needs. I really feel like I made the right choice."

Even the food at KWCA is top-notch, catered by Croissants de France.

"They wanted to help," Stewart said, repeating a common refrain heard from most everybody associated with the school.

"On the day that all the schools shut for Hurricane Sandy, all three of my teachers, and my office staff showed up for work," Stewart said, with more than a hint of pride.

"We come early and stay late because we want the school to grow," Rompella agreed. "We're like a family here."

But can the school grow and still retain the small classrooms, attentive teachers, and everything else that makes it great? Todd German thinks so.

"Our relationship with the college has really grown, especially since Dr. [Jonathan] Gueverra took over there [as college president]," said German. "There are a lot of opportunities with the college that we're just beginning to capitalize on. Right now the biggest challenge we face is simply getting the word out that we exist, and that we're doing so well. We can continue to grow and still provide the charter high school opportunity to the students of Key West that weren't here before. It's very exciting to be a part of it."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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