Charter school builds on 21 years of success

Students in The Villages High School Construction Management Academy, from left, Joshua Fulwider, Abigail Stewart and Jakobe Zick, bring in a roof truss to be raised on a home being built for Habitat for Humanity Lake-Sumter in Lady Lake. VHS juniors and seniors participate in the career academies.

Now in its 21st year, the great teaching and learning are constants at The Villages Charter School even at a time when many other things are different.

The school, which opened in 2000, now has more than 3,300 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

This anniversary year has been all about changes.

Plans were announced in August for a new expanded high school campus and a second K-8 campus for Villages workers’ children who attend The Villages Charter School. The charter school has waiting lists at many grades now, Education Director Randy McDaniel said.

The school is planning its belated 20th anniversary celebration for May 8 at The Villages Polo Club. It was postponed from last April and again from September, when the school had to cancel homecoming.

The Villages of Lake-Sumter Inc. founded the school as a charter school in the workplace and continues to provide additional funding since the school opened in 2000.

Charter schools are public schools that receive public funding and are free to innovate in exchange for meeting accountability standards.

The Villages Charter School has met high standards from test scores to graduation rates and other measures of achievement.

The school had an “A” rating every year since 2003 that the Florida Department of Education gave school grades. The Florida Department of Education suspended school ratings for 2020 after it suspended state testing last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state named the school a high-performing charter school in 2011.

The school opened in August 2000 for pre-K through fifth grade with 341 students and 22 teachers.

It opened the middle school in August 2001.

The Early Childhood Center then opened six classes of 3- and 4-year-olds in November 2001.

The Villages High School opened in August 2003.

The Villages Early Learning Company now operates The Little Buffalo Learning Center for 1- and 2-year-olds and the Early Childhood Center for 3- and 4-year-olds nearby. Like the charter school, they enroll children based on their parents’ qualifying employment, but they also are open to other families in the community.

A look back shows notable accomplishments worth celebrating.

The charter school’s 21 years of innovation includes all elementary students taking Spanish classes and incorporating the arts at all grade levels, even as many traditional public schools have cut arts education in that time.

While many high schools across the country are glad to have a couple of career academies for some interested students, Villages High School has 14 career academies in which all juniors and seniors in traditional instruction on campus and Buffalo eLearning participate.

Buffalo eLearning, which follows the school bell schedule, is a new option for this semester as is VCS Online, which offers learning on individual schedules. VCS Online students are not in academies because they have limited class selection through the school’s partnership with Florida Virtual School, VHS Principal Rob Grant said.

In addition to the high school’s career academies, VHS also follows another best practice for high school achievement. In that model, high school students can earn an associate of arts degree with their high school diploma, said Monica Almond, senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

“These programs are working well for students also,” Almond said.

Last spring, 44 of 228 VHS seniors earned their associate of arts degrees through dual-enrollment courses with Lake-Sumter State College. 

The charter high school’s original design included career academies, some of which persist, such as the Culinary Arts Academy. Some academies evolved. Some are new, such as the Fitness and Coaching Academy, which formed a little more than a year ago.

This year, the renamed Digital Media Design Academy consolidated the Journalism and TV Production Academies, bringing the total from 15 career academies in 2019-20 to 14 in 2020-21.

The academies offer career certifications recognized by their respective industries.

Since last year, VHS increased the pass rate for students taking career certification exams as well as state funding for those programs, Vice Principal Kelly Colley said.

The Florida Career and Professional Education Act provides a partnership between business and education communities. The number of VHS students earning industry certifications under that state partnership increased 50% last year despite schools being closed the fourth quarter and students having to learn online, she said.

Students who demonstrate mastery by earning industry certifications also may receive college credit for them, Colley said.

For example, she said, someone who earns a certificate for Quick Books may be able to get a college accounting credit.

All the teachers in VHS’ career academies have the certifications they hope their students will earn, Colley said. 

Those career academies put The Villages Charter School ahead of another national trend to incorporate career technical education.

The many career academies in The Villages High School are unique, said former Gov. Jeb Bush, who attended the opening of The Villages Charter Middle School in 2001 and spoke at Villages High School’s first graduation in 2006.

Bush started the first charter school in Florida, McDaniel said.

Bush also launched the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The foundation’s goal is to support state leaders in transforming education to unlock opportunity and lifelong success for every child.

Career education shows students the relevance of traditional subjects such as algebra and chemistry, Almond said. Career academies enable students to go straight into good-paying jobs, into higher education in that field or both.

“Fifteen academies is a lot for one school,” Almond said last spring before Journalism and TV Production academies combined.

Combining rigorous coursework with career technical education also reduced student discipline problems and improved student engagement, she said.

“That’s the kind of flexibility you have in the charter structure for autonomous public schools,” Bush said.

Vocational and career technical education, such as the VHS academies, is part of a national trend that is definitely on the rise, Almond said.

Congress reauthorized the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act that funds such programs in 2018. Florida offered grants for schools to purchase equipment to start career academies in 2006 and has since increased its support, McDaniel said.

“We’re trying to walk the line here that students can choose different paths to success,” McDaniel said.

The career academies make students aware of possibilities and position them to make good choices and adapt, he said.

“It makes sense when you would have an employer-based, workplace-based school it would have career academies,” Bush said. “In many cases you can get a nationally recognized certificate, you can get a job. What a revolutionary idea that is.”

The school was chartered as a school in the workplace, but is the only remaining school in that model in Florida, McDaniel said.

Career academies are at the forefront nationally, he said.

“Policymakers across the country are now focused on that,” Bush said. “It’s validation of what was the norm here from the very beginning.”

As a school of choice, McDaniel said parents have more convenient options than the charter school, but their children and children’s education are more important.

Most choose the charter school for two reasons, he said.

The school has shared ownership of students’ learning. It requires parents to be involved in their children’s education.

Parents also share the school’s core values, which are the same as The Villages company’s core values, McDaniel said. The Villages gave the school a great foundation in designing it, he said.

“It’s a beautiful school, too,” Bush said. “That’s a tribute again to Gary Morse, who always did things first class.”

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.

Read this story and many others in Sunday's edition of the Daily Sun.