Hillsdale College nurtures charter schools in its image

Fourth- through sixth-grade participants in Pineapple Cove’s February 2016 spelling bee. (Source: Pineapple Cove Classical Academy.)

PALM BAY, Florida — A large electronic welcome sign outside Pineapple Cove Classical Academy scrolls: “An old-fashioned education.”

Located in Palm Bay, on Florida’s mid-Atlantic coast, this public charter school serves a diverse community of lower- and middle-income families. Pineapple Cove quickly has become an educational gem in Brevard County. Its 23 classrooms feature directed instruction, teaching in explicit phonics, history (imparted through original source documents — not textbooks), music, art and — rare in 2016 — cursive writing.

A fervent expectation infuses this campus: All students can grow, academically and also in character.

“It’s really funny that our 2,500-year-old curriculum is now an innovative one,” says the school’s principal, Kelly Gunter, 33, who wrote the school’s charter.

Just a year old, the kindergarten-to-sixth-grade school will expand to add a seventh grade this fall and an eighth by 2017, when new-classrooms are completed.

This campus is one of the latest in Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative. The Michigan-based liberal-arts college has supported 15 U.S. charter school start-ups, aiming for 50 such institutions by 2022.

Hillsdale does not fund the schools. Instead, it offers free mentoring to school founders who follow Hillsdale’s educational philosophy.

“Our role is to serve as the architect of the academic program, which includes curriculum and instruction, and provide on-going advice to the school founders and to the school principal,” said Phillip Kilgore, director of Hillsdale’s charter program. Hillsdale also helps the schools recruit principals, trains teachers and offers feedback after on-site visits.

“We maintain this relationship with each school,” Kilgore said, “so long as they stay on mission and adhere to the educational philosophy we all embraced together at the inception of the relationship.”

With its classical curriculum, uniforms and commitment to teaching the virtues of courtesy, perseverance, self-government, service, honesty and courage, Pineapple Cove already boasts a 400-student waiting list for fall as word spreads.

“It has taken that community by storm,” said Kilgore, who praises the school’s great start. “The teachers there have had just a really wonderful experience in their launch in their first year.”

The school was founded by John and Beth Moran, who opened Pineapple Cove Academy Early Learning facility, also in Palm Bay. Thanks to their success with pre-kindergarten students, parents asked for more. Soon, the enterprising couple connected with Hillsdale and started the new campus last August.

Moran says he’s no educator and calls himself a “business guy.” But his enthusiasm for excellence is heartfelt. “I have an incredible drive,” he says. His connection to children is also undeniable as he scans the cafeteria and playfully sprays whipped cream on small, giggling faces.

Statewide, 22 percent of all charter-school students are black. Pineapple Cove is similarly diverse. Hispanic students make up 16 percent of enrollees. Black and multiracial students represent 9 percent each.

Academically, Florida charter schools perform well against their traditional counterparts, according to Student Achievement in Florida Charter Schools, an April 2014 state education department study. Most significantly, the report revealed that the black/white student-achievement gap “was lower for charter-school students in 18 of the 18 comparisons,” across all grades and subjects.

State reading scores from 2015-16 show Pineapple Cove outpacing its district counterparts in second, fourth and sixth grades.

Gunter says teachers and students focus on excellence. “It’s all business when you are here, because this should be your job.”

Latin and classic literature are school staples. Sixth graders read everything from Shakespeare to The Scarlet Pimpernel. They also learn to recite poetry, which fortifies their memorization and public-speaking skills.

Pineapple Cove uses a core knowledge curriculum that outlines a series of lessons and learning goals that fortify one another, from grade to grade. When students study Greek, they also listen to Greek music. Students do not work on computers in the classroom.

Perhaps most important, there is a shared focus on teaching virtues and doing the right thing. A tone-setting sign in a second-grade classroom cites Booker T. Washington: “Character, not circumstances, makes the man.”

The school also teaches service and patriotism by partnering with the American Legion. Members participate in school ceremonies and student projects, such as Valentine’s for Veterans.

Assistant Principal Lisa Wheeler, 37, praises her colleagues and the school’s growing family. “We have such invested parties here,” she said of their spirited devotion.

“I believe the freedom we have been given as a charter school allows us to make decisions that are in the best interests of the children,” she said. “There are a lot of things that we profess in this school that are the exact opposite of what public progressive schools are doing today.”

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