POINCIANA – After lobbying for months to get a high school built on the Polk County side of Poinciana, not an easy task to accomplish at a time of tight budgets, a local economic development group may have found an alternative way of doing that.
The Poinciana Economic Development Alliance has been contacted by Somerset Academy, a charter school company based in Pembroke Pines, which is interested in building a high school in Poinciana. PEDA, a non-profit group working to bring more businesses, jobs and services to Poinciana, is now working with officials at Somerset to submit an application to the Polk County School Department.
“We’ve been really working behind the scenes for quite a while on that,” said Nick Murdock, the chairman of PEDA. “We finally got Somerset Charter to submit the application this week. If this happens, the bottom line is it’s going to be a big win-win situation for everyone.”
For months now, PEDA has been lobbying Polk County to build a high school and middle school on the Polk County side of Poinciana, which has more than 31,000 residents – more than neighboring cities like Haines City and St. Cloud.
Currently, all of the middle and high schools in Poinciana are on the Osceola County side of the community of 10 villages, but residents of the Polk County side can’t attend those schools because they don’t pay property taxes that fund those schools to Osceola.
As PEDA began negotiating with Polk County School Department officials, Murdock said, Somerset Academy walked into the picture and expressed interest in operating a high school in the community.
One reason, Murdock said, is because the student body is available to fill a high school immediately.
“We had some new demographic studies done, and the numbers say we’ll have a full high school on day one,” Murdock said, adding that there are an estimated 13,000 students on the Polk County side of Poinciana alone.
Somerset Academy, Inc. was founded in 1997 when it opened its first school, Somerset Neighborhood Charter School, in Miramar. At the time, it consisted of two trailers providing education to 50 students, one serving 25 students in grades kindergarten through the second grade, and the other serving 25 students in grades three through five. The school has grown since then, and a year later Somerset Neighborhood Charter School became one of the first charter schools in the state of Florida to seek and receive accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
According to the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, charter schools are public schools that operate under a performance contract. The charter contract is between the charter school governing board and the sponsoring community, and details the school’s mission, program, goals, methods of assessment and ways to measure success.
Wendy Farrell is a member of PEDA, who has also been active in Poinciana’s schools. She noted that one of the community’s three high schools, New Dimensions High, is a charter school – and a highly successful one.
“The only charter school I’ve worked with is New Dimensions, and there are no differences whatsoever,” between this school and the public ones funded by Osceola County, she noted.
“I’ve been involved in New Dimensions for seven years now, and it’s an amazing school,” Farrell said. “They do senior presentations every year, and the kids do job shadowing and make a power presentation. It’s so great to see what the kids aspire to be.”
If Poinciana’s Polk County neighborhoods can get a new charter school, Farrell said, that would provide another option to students who now travel to Haines City to attend high school.
“It becomes a school of choice for parents,” Farrell said. ‘’As long as they’re following the Sunshine State standards, then if charter is the way we need to go, I’m happy about it.”
Another PEDA member, Annette Brown-Best, agreed.
“I think it just gives you more choices,” she said. “Polk County is lacking schools in Village 7 and Village 3, and if this helps the people in those villages, that’s a good thing. To me, it’s the same thing whether they call it a charter school or a public school. What difference does it make as long as it provides what the village needs.”
Murdock said there was no reason to believe that using a charter school would make a difference academically, and he said his own research indicated Somerset Academies has a good reputation. As of the 2007‐2008 academic school year, all Somerset elementary and middle schools achieved an “A “ grade collectively, while the high school achieved a “B” on the State of Florida’s A+ Accountability Reports.
“We feel that with partnering with the existing (Polk County) school system and bringing in charter academies, we will be filling in the academic needs of the counties,” Murdock said. “I feel confident the quality of the school will be good.”
Even better, he said, is that Somerset Academy can construct an academic campus in South Poinciana which would include a new high school, complete arts and athlete facilities, and elementary school, and even the poissibility of a future college facility, with an opening date for August 2014.
“I was contacted by three to four different representatives from the charter school, and they said they can make this happen very quickly, and they have a great reputation,” Murdock said. “Initially I wasn’t pursuing charter schools, but with the lack of funding in Polk County for a new school, we decided to pursue this.”
PEDA is now working with Somerset Academy to get an application in to the Polk County School Department, and David Lewis, media representative for the school department, said it would be submitted to their Magnet, Choice and Charter Office “that oversees this process for our district.”
Murdock also said he would reach out to the community to help build support for this project.
“We’ll be holding some meetings with the residents,” Murdock said. “We need everyone to be on board. It is extremely important to assemble as many letters of support by all family, business and leadership members in the area.”
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