New Charter School Opens for Lakewood Ranch Students | Eastern County

School administrators Bradley Warren and Cheryl Cendan spent a lot of time inside Starbucks and Panera cafes on State Route 70, just off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, earlier this year.

Not necessarily for a double espresso or a Green Passion smoothie. But instead of meeting individually with hundreds of Lakewood Ranch parents who wanted to learn more about the charter school the duo was helping launch.

During those chow sessions, the school — Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free public charter school — was up to 10 months before opening. There wasn’t even a temporary office, let alone a school to visit, hence the conversations in the cafe.

But the excitement was up to date. “It was non-stop,” says Cendan, headmaster of the upper school, from the ninth to the final year. “We sometimes met 10 or 12 parents in one day.”

The couple have experience in charter school administration, including running schools in Hillsborough County under the same parent company as Fort Lauderdale-based Lakewood Ranch Prep – Charter Schools USA. Lakewood Ranch residents Cendan and Warren are the public faces of Lakewood Ranch Prep, which opened Aug. 10 on White Eagle Boulevard.

“It’s so exciting to open a new school,” says Cendan who, among other positions in his education career, previously worked in curriculum administration for the Manatee County School District. “I tell people it’s like having a baby. It is an amazing experience, something you will never forget.

Public charter schools operate under a performance contract, or “charter,” with the state, which frees the school from traditional public school regulations while holding them accountable for academic and financial outcomes. Jon Hage, former head of research for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s public policy organization, founded Charter Schools USA in 1997. A for-profit entity, Charter Schools USA operates schools in five southern states -east, including 14 Florida districts. He has another school in Manatee County – Manatee Charter School in Bradenton.

Florida is a national leader in approving public charter schools, which can be controversial in some states. This is partly due to the counter-intuitive nature, with programs sometimes focusing on certain disciplines, from science to the arts. Lakewood Ranch Prep, for example, uses the WISH model, which stands for Wellness, Innovation, Science, and Health. Some highlights of the WISH program include personalized learning plans; learning villages; partnerships with community members, organizations and businesses; and studies in the health sciences.

Beyond that, the North Star of the school, Warren says, is individualized education. “We want to teach children where they are. We are not a one-size-fits-all school.

This non-traditional approach to education on its own has been divisive in some states, like New York — and sometimes Florida — but has also won many fans in charter schools. This includes not only administrators, but also teachers and parents. Charter schools, by law, have lotteries for student enrollment. Lakewood Ranch Prep, with an initial kindergarten and ninth grade enrollment of 740 students, has received some 1,500 applications, and there is a waiting list for each year.

An excited relative from Lakewood Ranch Prep is Country Club East resident Eleni Gagnon. A transplant from Long Island, Gagnon and her husband began tracking the progress of Lakewood Ranch Prep in early 2022. They met with Cendan and Warren and soon enrolled their 5-year-old daughter, Mia, in kindergarten.

An aspect that marked the Gagnons? The village concept, where a team of teachers has a group of students in learning pods with flexible seating. These teachers collaborate and plan together. And the Gagnons were sold not only on the school mission, but on Cendan and Warren. “A lot of schools may have bells and whistles, but it takes strong leaders to make it work,” says Eleni Gagnon. “We really felt their passion.”

This enthusiasm also extends to teachers. Cendan says recruiting teachers, given the statewide shortage, was a lot easier than they thought. Many would-be teachers have contacted the school after seeing Facebook posts about it – even before the recruitment ads were posted.

Warren says that many of the teachers they interviewed shared a similar story: when looking for a new school, they sought more autonomy, more freedom in learning approaches and a deeper connection with students.

“We don’t want very good teachers,” Warren says. “We want great teachers.”

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