What was initially perceived as another private charter school encroaching on precious South Miami community property may actually become an innovative locally-oriented new school. J.R.E. Lee opens August 22nd as an untested hybrid private-public partnership program for incoming sixth graders. Hopes are to eventually evolve into a middle school.
When City of South Miami officials and local residents learned that the Miami- Dade County School Board was proceeding with a pseudo charter school at J.R.E. Lee Center without the initial consultation and cooperation of the local community, the hackles went up.
“If this becomes another private charter school that does not serve the immediate community, then you should all resign,” declared retired South Miami Middle School Assistant Principal Richard Ward to the commission when the news broke.
Community activist, retired social worker and J.R.E. Lee student from 1952 to 1958 Sarah Ann Tompkins said, “We have children that live in the neighborhood that have to deal with dangerous traffic walking to Ludlam and South Miami Elementary and if you are going to reopen a historic school, it should be for the residents of the community and they should have first priority.”
The mayor and city commissioners were equally dismayed at the prospect of the J.R.E. Lee Academy for International Education Charter School opening on August 22nd on what all agree was a “fast track.”
While presenting the program before the commission at a recent meeting, Assistant Superintendent at Miami-Dade County Public Schools Dr. Helen S. Blanch said that according to Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, “We have no time to waste. We will start small, build it and the parents will decide. It is a community school.”
According to Blanch when public school property like J.R.E. Lee becomes unoccupied and available, as has the recently dormant alternative school, the property is at a premium and according to Florida statutes, is fair game for private charter schools to scoop up.
“We had to move on this project right away because just this year we have received more than 90 charter school applications for the board to make decisions on,” explained Blanch. She also added that area schools are under capacity, with South Miami Middle School at 84 percent capacity and Ludlam Middle School at 66 percent, so J.R.E. Lee did not qualify for boundary school status by the class-size amendment in the Florida state statutes.
“We are proud of the J.R.E. Lee name and it will be maintained,” said Blanch. “This is a hybrid model that has never been tried before and although the school board will not cover day to day operations, but rather operate on the back end, we are not charging rent. It will be run as a not-forprofit organization and we are committed to absolute transparency.”
Blanch also stated that although Florida state statutes require recruitment of students be district-wide, there is no intention of working apart from the community, but rather South Miami student recruitment will be a priority.
Invitational flyers to area residents, automated calls to family households and an open house are all part of the outreach. However, Mayor Phillip Stoddard and area resident FIU Professor Dean Whitman both stated at a recent commission meeting that they did not receive the flyers.
Professor Whitman also said, “Let’s just hope there aren’t going to be a bunch of Lincoln Navigators driving through the school. Nobody walks to school anymore and there is no bus transportation at these schools. Every student will probably be transported alone in a vehicle and there will be a considerable traffic load in a short period of time.” He also added that anyone who is unhappy about this decision should contact Miami-Dade County school board member Raquel Regalado, who serves South Miami District Six.
Since the announcement of J.R.E. Lee’s new program was made, school board members and incoming principal Vera Hirsch have met with the mayor and city commissioners and explained in detail the pilot program that will include Net Books, or small notebook computers, for all incoming sixth graders as well as a $9.95 per month arrangement with Comcast for internet access to needy students. “We are reaching out to the digital divide at home and planning ahead,” said Hirsch. “We realize many parents already have purchased school uniforms and made arrangements for the fall, but we are here to show that schools of choice and community schools can all play in the same sandbox.”
Richard Ward has been appointed to the six-member governing board for the J.R.E. Lee Academy for International Education Charter School. He is cautiously optimistic about what the future will foretell. “I feel far better about it than I did a few weeks ago and I am pleased that it will not be controlled by outside sources. That’s why I accepted a position on the board,” he said. “But it is way too early to tell how things will unveil. Boards take time to develop. Ultimately, the aim is to have a satisfactory ethnic ratio in the school that will serve the immediate community.”
Commissioner Brian Beasley appeared pleased that a school whose reincarnation the city commission had no authority to determine will serve the community, although he hoped that jobs for the area could be a guaranteed part of the makeup.
Vice Mayor Valerie Newman said that she still has mixed feelings about the plan, although they have creatively worked around some critical issues. “If what they say is accurate, than it is workable. But, I fear these noble goals will eventually go by the wayside and another traditional charter school will take over. I have very little hope they can sustain this model over time.”
Community activist Sarah Ann Tompkins reminisced about her favorite teacher at J.R.E. Lee Middle School – Miss Lane. “She had a special spirit to make a positive imprint on children’s lives,” she said. “She treated everyone with a unique regard and would always say ‘you can do it, even when you thought you could not.’”
If the new hybrid school can accomplish those brilliant historical models set by the original J.R.E. Lee faculty, they will pass the community test.
For more information on the J.R.E. Lee Academy for International Education Charter School opening up for incoming sixth graders on August 22, call 305-883- 3900. For concerns about the anticipated opening, contact South Miami District Six, Miami-Dade County School Board member Raquel Regalado at 305-995-1334.