A School We Love, University Academy

A common criticism of Charter schools is although they are technically “public schools,” their operations are not always managed by people with degrees in education leadership or in public administration. One group that commonly invests time and money into the operations of charter schools (but is criticized for doing so) is business professionals and entrepreneurs. This criticism seems strange when one considers the praise the business world often receives in other administrative arenas, but in schools they are often unwelcome.

Take for example NPR’s extremely popular podcast, “How I Built This: Lessons in Life and Business from the World’s Greatest Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Idealists.” This podcast is popular for its life lessons inside and outside the business world, but some of these same innovators might be unwelcome in a school setting. Today, we’re focusing on what a school can look like when an entrepreneur partners with educators to create a vibrant community through K-12 education.

In 2010, Panama City relocated its airport, now called Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, and left behind an empty airport terminal with two runways three miles from downtown Panama City. Panama City wanted to see this property redeveloped for mixed use, blending residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and entertainment uses. They sold the property to Leucadia National, a developer who promised to deliver on the dream with a mixed use development to be named SweetBay.

Leucadia began to focus on the community attributes that could help it realize the city’s vision. The company knew the nearby schools were struggling, which would make it extremely difficult to entice new families to move to SweetBay. Attracting families with children is an important part of developing a sustainable community. Children are the essence of sustainability! A species without children eventually disappears. What could SweetBay do?

A nearby beach development offered a potential lesson. Beginning In the late 1980s, a real estate developer in nearby Walton County had slowly built a small beach-side town using the principles of New Urbanism. Seaside, Florida was designed to promote environmentally friendly spaces and habits that included promoting walking over driving cars.

Unfortunately, the children in Seaside had to ride buses to larger communities to attend school, a practice at odds with the idea of walkability. But when Florida passed a charter school law in the early 1990s, Seaside leapt at the opportunity.  Seaside Neighborhood School was established in 1996 at the center of Seaside as Florida's very first charter school. The new school enhanced the quality of life for children, and for their families, helping both the school and Seaside prosper.

The takeaway - Leucadia resolved to build a similar charter school in SweetBay, and to operate it so that it enhanced the surrounding community. Of course, this presented a problem. The developer didn’t know anything about educational pedagogy. The developer wanted to build a great school, but how?

One attribute of successful business people is their ability to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and their knack for building win-win partnerships with those who have other areas of expertise. So, after ironing out some wrinkles in their plan, SweetBay’s developers approached the education department at  FSU-Panama City with an idea. Let’s partner in the creation of a new charter school. The FSU education department will control curriculum, teacher training and all of the academic elements of the school. The business professionals will manage the school’s operations and handle the school’s business development - all of the non-academic parts of the school. To market FSU’s academic control, the school would be named University Academy.

One big wrinkle that the developer had to iron out before getting started was related to a feature of the Florida charter school law. Under the law, any charter school that was oversubscribed had to fill all of the seats in the school using a lottery. SweetBay worried that if it successfully built a great school before the neighborhood around the school was built, the school seats would probably fill up with children living outside the neighborhood. Homeowners in SweetBay could not be sure that their children would actually get in!

It was time to find another win-win solution. SweetBay approached community leaders about finding a way to make sure that SweetBay families could enroll in their neighborhood school while also keeping the school open to the families who did not live in SweetBay. The eventual solution was that SweetBay’s families were guaranteed a seat in the school, but only up to 50% of the seats. The rest of the charter school applications would be filled by lottery. Panama City would get a new school at no cost, families outside of SweetBay would be able to attend the school, and SweetBay would get a neighborhood school that would serve as an anchor for the community. Panama City’s community leaders promoted new state legislation that made this win-win-win solution possible.

This school is such an interesting model due to the partnership between educators and business. There was an abandoned building, a community ripe with need for better education, and a developer who had a vision for reusing the empty space and enhancing education - all while helping to grow the local economy. Of course, SweetBay’s developers were unapologetically pursuing their own business interests, but their business interests are to build a great community and a great school.

So how did this all turn out? Here is a note from SweetBay’s “amenities” web page:


Imagine waving from your front porch as your kids walk to school. This vision was a part of SweetBay before the first shovel broke ground. University Academy, our neighborhood school, is Florida's 2018 top­-ranking free K­8 public charter school. Attracting highly skilled teachers, University Academy emphasizes evidence­-based extended time on core subjects and individualized instruction. Bringing life to a former airport terminal, the academy is a true testament to architectural design and quality. SweetBay new construction homeowners receive direct admission to University Academy.

So, what are some of the business secrets that SweetBay’s developer used to turn this public-private partnership into Florida’s best charter school? Well, we are running short on space, so we will have to return to that topic in a later post.

For now, remember, business perspective is not the enemy of public education. People who are looking for win-win solutions have a lot to offer. We actually need more of them in public education if we want to create great schools and communities.