After Volusia school officials shot down plans for a charter high school that would expand on the model of a thriving K-8 school, another school has come forward with similar plans that would mean not one, but two candidates vying next year to become the county’s first charter high school.
The new venture would introduce a career and technical education-oriented middle and high school in Southeast Volusia, where school and business leaders see a gap in programs to prepare students for jobs in industry.
That new secondary school, projected to enroll 1,200 students, would build on the success of Burns Science and Technology Charter School, an A-rated K-8 school in Oak Hill that has hit its capacity with 451 students and racked up a waiting list of another 300.
In development under the name Southeast Volusia School of Science and Technology (SEV Sci-Tech), the middle and high schools would open in August 2019, pending School Board approval next year.
The proposal mirrors one put forward this year by the people behind Volusia’s largest charter school, A-rated Ivy Hawn Charter School Of The Arts in Lake Helen. That application — to build middle and high schools to serve 1,600 students on a shared site in Orange City — was withdrawn after school district officials said it didn’t fulfill with state requirements. Backers plan to resubmit plans for a high school next year in hopes of opening in 2019.
As with Ivy Hawn, the plans to expand at Burns have been largely motivated by school families who’ve been asking for a charter high school in which to enroll their children, said Jan McGee, founding principal and a key driver of the expansion.
“I think it’s just the atmosphere,” McGee said. “They’re comfortable here.”
Parents’ pleas have been matched by calls from local businesses for education pathways that can prime students for the increasingly complicated demands of advanced manufacturing, engineering and other technical disciplines.
Among area business representatives vocalizing the need to mobilize a future workforce is John Massey, a broker with Massey Properties in Edgewater who now serves as the proposed school’s board chairman.
Massey was among a trio of business leaders who toured Burns Sci-Tech at the start of the school year and had a conversation with school leaders about how they might blend their ambitions to open a high school that would hone an able workforce.
“We’re not educators,” Massey said. “We’re not school people. We were looking at this initially from the perspective of developing a skilled workforce and then we also had all these kids in Southeast Volusia that were kind of wayward.”
Massey spoke to problems he’s encountered of students not exhibiting the skills or work ethic businesses need in Southeast Volusia with many unable to pass a drug test.
He was taken with McGee’s work at Burns Sci-Tech upon getting a firsthand look at the school.
“When we saw what she had done down there, we were totally impressed,” Massey said.
The concept for the middle and high school is in its infancy with details that are still fuzzy.
EdFutures, Inc., the for-profit management company behind the K-8 schools at Burns and Ivy Hawn, is helping to market the new Burns project and will write the charter, but it’s uncertain if it would help run the school, said Greg Ruffin, chief operating officer for EdFutures.
Financing for the expansion also remains in question, and a location has yet to be pinned down. SEV Sci-Tech won’t be able to share property with Burns Sci-Tech, which sits on 10 acres in Oak Hill, because that site’s sewage and septic system can’t handle any more students, McGee said.
Board members and charter school leaders behind the schools envision opening with about 600 students and taking a “grow as you go” approach, McGee said, to hit capacity at 1,200 while converting the current K-8 school into an elementary school.
They plan to essentially offer students two different tracks, including one vocational pathway catering to students not necessarily planning on a postsecondary degree that could, for example, lead to a career in machining. The other pathway would be defined by college preparation so that students could, for instance, pursue studies in astrophysics while still reaping the benefits of hands-on learning.
Development of school curriculum will be headed by McGee and her staff.
The expansion would introduce robust career and technical training into Southeast Volusia to relieve what educators like Daniel Hargrave, assistant principal at Burns Sci-Tech, see as a drought that has held the region back.
Hargrave, who previously spent 13 years working for New Smyrna Beach High with 10 of those years devoted to career and technical training, complimented the public school’s programs and teachers but noted it lacks curriculum that allows students to work with their hands.
“There’s something missing that needs to be filled,” Hargrave said.
Questions of duplication
At a time when state policy is paving the way for the development of charter schools, those behind SEV Sci-Tech don’t pit themselves as competitors with local public schools, nor do they believe the Volusia school district should necessarily see them that way.
Volusia School Board Vice Chairwoman Linda Cuthbert isn’t convinced Southeast Volusia, which she represents, needs any more technical-minded education programs, pointing to the menu of courses available at both New Smryna Beach High and Spruce Creek High in Port Orange as “adequate.”
Both schools have robotics classes, engineering courses, computer labs and a host of other academies that include concentrations in finance, sports marketing, veterinary sciences and medical disciplines.
She added that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) feeder programs have become more popular in Southeast Volusia public schools as Edgewater Public schools youngsters in coding and robotics that prime them to learn more advanced STEM concepts at New Smyrna Beach Middle that subsequently funnel into programs at the high school level.
“They would not be adding anything new,” Cuthbert said of SEV Sci-Tech. “They would be duplicating.”
School district and board officials, including Cuthbert, have also expressed concerns about the ability for new charter schools to reach their enrollment targets when growth in district enrollment is languishing.
But the charter school backers see a new middle school and high school that underscore technical education as a way to help reverse the outflow of students leaving Volusia County as more industry moves in and expands.
“Our kids are leaving because they don’t have the skills to fill these jobs, so we’re hoping this will help,” McGee said.
If more students were adequately trained, Massey said, it would also likely be easier to draw new companies to the area.
“If we could show that we had the educational facilities and programs where we were creating skilled workers,” he said, “it would be easier to attract those companies.”