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Pinellas board stands by decision to close charter elementary

LARGO - Parents hoping the school board would reverse its decision to close Imagine School at St. Petersburg's elementary school may be in a bind today, the deadline to submit school-choice applications. Despite pleas from school officials Tuesday, Pinellas County School Board members stuck by their Dec. 11 decision to close the school at the end of June. The charter elementary school at 1950 First Ave. N., which focuses on character education and individual instruction for struggling students, is the lowest-performing elementary school in the county in terms of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores and student learning gains. Imagine School officials asked board members to reconsider last month's decision at the board's monthly workshop. Clarence E. Davis, the president of the school's board of directors, even promised to close the school if grades don't improve this year. But multiple reviews of its performance speak for themselves, said Pinellas County schools' associate counsel, Laurie Dart.
"Kids have lost, essentially, an elementary education," Dart said. Imagine has earned three F's and one D since opening in 2008, landing on a list of Florida's 100 lowest-performing schools, along with seven others in Pinellas County. Imagine also runs a middle school at the same location that will remain open. School officials will now file a lawsuit with the state Department of Administrative Hearings, which will conduct a hearing within 60 days and issue a recommendation to the school board on whether to reinstate Imagine's elementary school charter. Davis called the School Board's decision to close the school a "rush of insignificance" and provided members with a stack of letters from teachers and parents of the 250 students who will be displaced. Officials estimate that 99 percent of them receive free or reduced-price lunches. Roderick Dunson, a member of the Imagine board, said he isn't looking for a new school for his child just yet. "It's a small environment with structure … and my child has all A's," Johnson said after Tuesday's meeting. "I absolutely stand by Imagine Schools. I'll stand by them till the day the doors close and don't open again." Most of the students attending Imagine's elementary school are zoned for Lakewood Elementary School at 4151 Sixth St. S. That school has the highest learning gains in the county, Dart said. The decision to close the Imagine elementary is already affecting morale, said Rod Sasse, Imagine Schools' executive vice president for Florida. "What would you do if you were in the school?" Sasse said. "You'd think 'Well, the school's not going to be renewed, why should I even worry about the test? Why should I do anything?' We're saying 'Wait. Give us the opportunity to change,'" he said. In an effort to boost test scores and students' learning, the school extended its hours, brought in reading tutors and replaced the principal for the fourth time with Carolyn Wilson late last year, Sasse said. "I did have a lot of confidence in the principal last year. I did the state walk through and felt like they really were on the path to success, but then come October, she's gone," said school board member Terry Krassner. "To build a school it takes a good amount of time … and I feel like we need to stay our course with the closing." Turning around the troubled school would be a "miracle," Dart said. But Wilson, who has worked in the school system for 38 years, said she will prove that prediction wrong. "I maintain a standard of excellence, and I'm not expecting anything less at Imagine," Wilson said. "It's just a challenging environment, but I can honestly say that we will make a change. I know we will."

adawson@tampatrib.com (727) 215-9851 Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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