Miami to Open a Public Boarding School

by | January 29, 2014 AT 2:00 PM

By David Smiley

After years of behind-the-scenes efforts, Florida's first ever public boarding school is coming to Miami-Dade County.

The campus, on the edge of Indian Hammocks Park in Kendall, is envisioned as Miami-Dade's version of the renowned SEED School in Washington D.C. -- a free prep-school made famous in a 2010 documentary lauding charter schools called Waiting for Superman.

After a planned opening in August, students will leave their poor urban neighborhoods to study and live in four concrete-block buildings now under renovation -- going home only on weekends.

"We approach this work as if every child should be given what we would give to our own children, because they are our own during those five days a week, and 24 hours a day," said Kara Locke, who will be head of the Miami-Dade school after holding the same position for six years in D.C. "We certainly have high expectations of ourselves and others do, too. We have a legacy to live up to."

The groundbreaking effort has some influential backers -- including the wife of a Miami congressman and a major developer -- but for the SEED Foundation, replicating the success of the inaugural D.C. campus has proved to be difficult. A 24/7 school for at-risk kids faces financing and student-recruitment challenges that traditional charter schools don't have to deal with.

But if all goes well, 30 sixth-grade boys and 30 girls will move into refurbished dorms this summer. Each year the school plans to add another batch of sixth graders and ultimately graduate its first class of seniors in 2021 from a college-like campus serving 400 of South Florida's poorest and neediest kids day and night.

The brainchild of former management consultants Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota, the concept for SEED -- Schools for Educational Evolution and Development -- isn't complicated. The pair wanted to take the tuition-based, prep-school experience and make it available free to kids who most need a 24-hour academic experience but can least afford it. They opened their first location in D.C. in 1998, and the school now boasts freshman graduation rates over 90 percent while serving kids from poor and broken families in crime-ridden communities.

That success helped SEED expand to Maryland in 2008 earned the D.C. school praise from President Barack Obama during a visit in 2009, and secured a featured role one year later in the documentary that had considerable mainstream success.

The Miami school, which is backed by Tia Diaz-Balart, wife of U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and Terremark founder Manny Medina, would be the third SEED location.

"We have a green light to move forward. It's a reality now," said Tia Diaz-Balart, South Florida director of the SEED Foundation. While each school is a little different, SEED schools run from Sunday afternoon, when students arrive, to Friday afternoon, when they return home for the weekend.

Students who attend SEED are immersed in a schoolhouse environment. The day begins before dawn with sports like flag football and jump-rope, followed by showering, breakfast and reading. The school day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., which is longer than the traditional school day.

According to Locke, students who enter the school in the sixth grade are often far behind their peers in academics, so programming is based on remediation. By the time SEED students become freshmen, they are expected to have caught up in class and enroll in college prep courses.

Outside of academics, students also take life-skills classes that, depending on the age group, might involve a lesson on talking out an argument or why they should not plagiarize.

On weekends, buses will take students to and from home. Weeknights are spent in the dorms, which have names like Hampton House. Some faculty members will live on-site.

"SEED was definitely a learning experience," said Tamia Spells, a 2010 graduate of SEED D.C. who is now majoring in political science at Virginia Tech.

Spells, who is moving to Miami this summer to become a teacher through the Teach For America program, said the D.C. school helped pull her out of a tough life. Spells' mother was just 14 when Spells was born, and Spells' father was shot and killed when she was 2. She said her story "really isn't that unique from a lot of my peers."

Spells, 21, said the overnight boarding helped kids develop "not only as students but people."

"You get homesick a little," she said. "But in the end, I didn't have the struggle or transition that some of my [college] peers had freshmen year. I already knew what it was like to be away from home."

To qualify, applicants for SEED must be entering or retaking the sixth grade, at risk of failing school, be eligible for social services, and be in foster care or live in public housing. They also have to belong to a household with a gross income equal to no more than twice the federal poverty guidelines. One of the possible qualifiers is that an immediate family member has been incarcerated.

So far, South Florida recruiting efforts have yielded few applicants. But stories like Spells' compelled the founders of the Miami-based foster care agency Educate Tomorrow to contact the SEED Foundation, and spurred Tina Brown of the Overtown Youth Center to help attract prospective students.

Brown, the center's executive director, said many students who attend her center from areas like Little Haiti and Little Havana would benefit from leaving their crime-torn neighborhood for five days a week.

"You do have parents in this community who aren't educated, who can barely read themselves, and can't help their children with homework," she said. "We've got students who go home to situations where lights aren't on and the water isn't on. The environment just isn't conducive to learning."

Because SEED is based on a 24/7 model and serves children who receive social services, its financing is also more complex than that of the typical public school, and was made possible only by changing state law two years ago to allow public funding of boarding schools.

Each SEED student will receive thousands of state dollars through Miami-Dade Schools, which holds a charter contract with SEED. An additional $25,000 per student needs to be kicked in from the Florida Department of Education, which holds its own contract with the SEED Foundation, and has requested $1.5 million from the Legislature for next school year.

The state expects its costs to reach $10 million out of SEED's $13 million budget when the school hits peak capacity.

To get to that point, however, Diaz-Balart needs to raise $50 million, half in the coming year and half over the next two to three years. The money is to pay for renovations and ultimately a redevelopment of the Kendall Cottages area, which SEED hopes to raze and build into a brand new campus.

Buoyed by the support of developer Medina, Diaz-Balart said she is confident SEED will raise its millions. But even so, the August opening date is not a done deal. And for all the promises SEED makes, attempts to recreate the successes in D.C. have proved to be difficult.

Three years after SEED opened in Maryland in 2008, for instance, the Baltimore Sun reported that students were still struggling academically and some were dropping out of the program. A SEED spokeswoman said the school has since rebounded and had its contract renewed, but the campus had to confront a new problem in June after a student alleged he had been sexually assaulted by classmates.

The organization also said it is continuing efforts to open a location in Cincinnati after plans were dashed last year when a key supporter pulled out due to concerns about state funding. Even the D.C. school, while celebrated nationally, can have its struggles.

Like other secondary schools, SEED D.C.'s graduation rates are calculated based on high school freshmen. But about 11 percent of students leave each year and are not replaced with new applicants. For Spells, the D.C. graduate, she said only 34 of her 100 seventh-grade classmates graduated with her.

But Locke and Diaz-Balart are confident that, after years of planning, the Miami school will be a success. On a rainy January evening, the two talked to the Miami Herald in Kendall Cottage 1, where they expect 30 sixth-grade girls to live and learn next year. Locke talked about knocking down walls in the old cottage and ripping down barriers for kids.

Eventually, they want to tear down the cottages, which they are leasing from the county for $6 a square foot, and build new dorms and classrooms. If that doesn't work out, they'll look for a new Miami-Dade site. But for now, they'll make do with what they have and plan for the future.

"You've got to see it for what it will be," Locke said. "That's the trick with SEED Schools when we open up: seeing the potential."

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