Davis Bly hopes to be a marine biologist one day. His world changed when he went from a traditional public school to the Learning Gate Charter School in Lutz.
"In the public schools, there weren't a lot of projects that we could do, and it was just more working and sometimes, we would joke that it felt like a jail cell, because we were always locked in the class," said Davis, who is a sixth grader at the school.
Davis's dad says the students weren't the only prisoners in the public school system.
Donald Bly added, "You don't feel like on a day-to-day basis, the teachers feel some rigid attachment to a schedule, namely the FCAT."
The hands-on approach is helping the students learn how to go green early in their lives.
"If they were studying the Gulf waters, everything revolved around the Gulf waters, the science, the math, the writing. And as someone who is out in the real world, you know, most of what you do is project or unit based, and I feel like that's a part of learning as well," Bly said.
Michelle Mason moved her son from a traditional public school to Learning Gate. She was also a public school teacher before teaching at Learning Gate, and she eventually became the principal.
"I can remember thinking I had already taught for 13 years before coming here. My teaching profession began once I became a teacher at Learning Gate," she said.
That passion is part of what has made this an "A" school - one of the success stories of the charter school system. However, Hillsborough County School Board Chair Candy Olson says that doesn't mean charters are always the answer.
"We have charters that deal with very special groups of kids, and they do it better than we can in a big school. We also have charters that have failed and closed because they are not educating children," Olson said.
Examples include schools like the USF Patel Charter School, which the public school district had to step in and takeover. Or more recently, A.T. Jones, which suddenly closed and left parents scrambling to find new schools.
"One of the problems with those schools, though, is that the teachers seem to burn out very quickly. You get young, idealistic people in, but the turn over rate is very, very high because it's exhausting," she said.
Davis said that's not the case in his class.
"Mr. Jim, he's our nature teacher and he set up nets and, he has to have a special license, but the birds fly in and then we can examine them and see what kind they are and how they're migrating, It's cool," he said.
"My kids love my teachers and I think a lot of that is because the teachers chose to be there," Mason said.
Parents say charter schools provide a happy medium between public schools and private schools.
"I think charter schools are working on a budget that's much more similar to a local public school, and I feel like we're innovating. And I feel like my kids are getting a private school education, and I don't really think that's because of the money," Donald Bly said.
Olson argues that although traditional public schools receive roughly the same amount of money from the government, charter schools often get more community support.
"There's a real feeling in parts of the community that well, public schools are the government's business and they should be funded and we don't need to provide extra resources, whereas charters have this sort of semi-private status," Olson said.
The community support can also help traditional public schools like Sulphur Springs become a success story. Even Learning Gate's principal admits.
"The one area I do think that the public schools have an advantage over is definitely in the after school programs. You know when it comes to the sports, when it comes to some of those types of things," Mason said.
Charter schools provide more choices for parents, but the right choice for each parent can be as different as the schools themselves.
To compare the schools in Hillsborough County, check out their grades by following this link: http://schoolgrades.fldoe.org/.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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