New Sarasota charter school is expected to open in August 2019 and plans to serve 288 students in grades K-5

Historic ground was broken Tuesday night in Sarasota County when School Board members approved a new charter school that will provide dual-language immersive instruction to elementary school students in Spanish and English.

Dreamers Academy is set to open in August 2019 and will enroll about 288 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in its first year, according to its application. The school plans to use the two-way immersion model and teach classes to English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students in both Spanish and English, eventually teaching students to be fluent in both languages.

Dreamers Academy was approved in a 4-1 vote, with School Board member Eric Robinson as the only no vote, citing concerns with the curriculum.

The school is a decidedly local institution, spearheaded by Sarasota couple Thomas and Geri Chaffee with a governing board of local education experts, including Sarasota Military Academy founder Dan Kennedy and retired Sarasota County Schools deputy chief financial officer Al Weidner.

Geri Chaffee first noted the need for a dual-language school after volunteering with Tuttle Elementary students who spoke Spanish as a first language and were still learning English. Her own family has roots in Argentina and she lived in Puerto Rico, so Chaffee began to notice that students who could communicate well with her in Spanish were often struggling to perform academically in English. 

"I started working with these kids and I kept saying, 'We need to do something,'" Chaffee said. "These kids are falling behind and they are really smart in Spanish."

Chaffee began to do some research with her husband and found dual-language programs across the country and in the state of Florida, including Broward County and Palm Beach County schools. She felt this was a model that needed to be considered in Sarasota County.

"When we saw that there was a little bit of a deficit in the way kids learn and that we were not reaching a large percentage of our population, we started searching for: What can we do differently? That's when we came upon dual language," Chaffee said. "It's nothing new and the biggest thing about dual language is that it closes the achievement gap."

The achievement gap is a known phenomenon in Sarasota County Schools and schools across the state. Students learning English are among the groups that struggle to measure up to their peers academically. In 2018, 69 percent of Sarasota's non-English language learners in grades three through 10 scored proficiently on the state's reading test, while only 34 percent of students learning English received the same score.

During Tuesday's Board Meeting, coming off of hours of public comment over the district's new gender guidelines, School Board members were largely positive about Dreamers Academy's program. The school received high marks of 100 percent from the Charter Review Committee in all but one category, the educational plan, which received a score of 67 percent meets needs and 33 percent partially meets the needs established by the committee. Committee members were particularly concerned about the division of Spanish-language to English-language instruction, which they said fell between 80 to 90 percent Spanish and 10 to 20 percent English. 

Robinson cited that same reason during his no vote.

"My issue has to do with the curriculum. I still don't feel comfortable," Robinson said. "Staff brought it up at the Charter Review Committee about kids who have to pass their third-grade Florida Standards Assessment in English and not getting enough time during those periods dedicated to reading in English."

But School Board member Shirley Brown countered that, noting that the charter school was addressing a population of students who needed improvement.

"There is a difference of opinion on whether this will work or not, but I have to look at our numbers and our numbers say that maybe we could be doing better," Brown said. "This is an idea that may do better for us."

The school's approval is a long time coming for the Chaffees, who began talks with the district nearly a year and a half ago. They initially applied for a charter in the spring of 2018 but district officials advised them to amend their original application to have a better chance of approval. 

Perhaps one of the school's biggest supporters was Superintendent Todd Bowden, who personally told the Chaffees to resubmit their application, he said at an October workshop.

"As we went through the process, we reached the point at which I called Geri Chaffee and said, 'What I don't want to do is put the board in a position where they have to choose between a flawed application and a group of people they think very highly of,'" Bowden said. "Withdraw your application and fix the application so that it better represents the intent of your group."

Dreamers Academy is the second charter school to be approved by the School Board this year after State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota's Venice collegiate high school in early August.