Rise Academy, Miami-Dade's most improved school, closed

The police arrive well before 9 a.m. and park their three squad cars in Rise Academy's narrow blacktop lot. The net on a lone basketball hoop hangs dead in the already 90-degree heat. There are no school bells, no announcements. The only sound is the passing of cars on nearby South Dixie Highway and the occasional squawk on an officer's walkie-talkie. At this hour, parents normally drop off their children, but today is June 17 and school is out at Rise, maybe forever.

Soon four Miami-Dade school district officials arrive. Then the teachers pull up one by one in front of the blue and white concrete school on East Lucy Street in Florida City, where Florida's Turnpike ends and the Keys haven't quite begun. Instead of exiting their cars, they sit inside and begin dialing numbers on cell phones. Several start crying.

Finally, Gemma Torcivia, Rise Academy's 28-year-old founder and principal, pulls into the lot. Just a week earlier, school district officials had told her that Rise would be shut down. As she steps out of her tan Toyota sedan, she leaves her sunglasses on, as if headed to a wake.

By the end of the day, the school is emptied and stripped. Even its name is painted over, like a Ponzi scheme office — gone overnight. But Rise Academy South Dade Charter School was no fraud. In fact, it was one of the best schools in the county — perhaps the state — jumping from an F rating its first year to an A in 2009-10. Its math and reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) rose a combined 34 percent last year — more than any other school in Miami-Dade. By hiring young, energetic teachers and recruiting door-to-door in one of Florida's poorest areas, the school exceeded almost everyone's expectations. Its closing is a lesson in how big bureaucracy can smother even the most successful small idea.

Miami-Dade began approving charter schools in 1996. These institutions, which now educate about one of every ten students, are supposed to add competition and send more graduates to college. They receive some state funds but are run independently. Last year, 83 charters served nearly 31,000 kids in Miami-Dade County, and they received more than $223 million in state funding.

Torcivia, who looks a bit like Harry Potter, opened Rise in 2008. A former youth pastor who was brought up in West Palm Beach, she had worked for two years as a Teach for America special education instructor at Miami Central Senior High School.

She says she made the decision to strike out on her own in 2004 after seeing a teacher take off a high-heeled shoe and hit a troubled teenager in the head so hard that his ear bled.

"That's why I started Rise, because what I saw in that school was disgusting and disturbing," she says. "Things that should not happen to children happened every single day. And when I would make a statement or ask for help or call when I heard a kid being hit, no one would come."

While at Miami Central, Torcivia applied to Building Excellent Schools, an exclusive fellowship program in Boston focused on producing charter schools in poor urban areas. She was living in Homestead at the time and was appalled by the poverty and rundown buildings. A new public school hadn't been built in years, her neighbors told her. When her stint with Teach for America ended in 2006, Torcivia headed to Boston already determined to build a school back in Florida City, just southwest of Homestead.

During the two-year fellowship, she visited the top 50 charter schools in the nation. She also spent months shadowing teachers and administrators at Leadership Prep, a new charter school in Brooklyn. There she saw how a group of young, highly motivated teachers — many of them Teach for America alumni — could lift struggling kids' test scores. By 2007, Torcivia had filed paperwork with the state to start Rise Academy and began searching for a building in Florida City.

Stacey Arnold met Torcivia at a Teach for America event in Miami. Fresh out of the University of Miami, Arnold had already settled on the Ross Perot-founded program that recruits talented college grads and pays them to teach mostly needy kids. She didn't take long to buy into Torcivia's project. "It just seemed like a great mission," the peppy 24-year-old says. "Living in Florida, you know that's where Hurricane Andrew hit the hardest. I knew that it was a very poor area just now being rebuilt. Compared to Coral Gables, with its gated communities, nice cars, and things like that, it is so much poorer."

Classes began in fall 2008. The first year was difficult, Arnold admits. "You had to be a MacGyver of a teacher to work at Rise because you had to make do with so much less," she says. Although Torcivia had found the building on Lucy Street, the school district didn't give her permission to move in. Instead, the first year, Rise was split into two buildings — one for kindergarten and first grade, the other for sixth — three blocks apart. "The building was pretty challenging: it was a big, old trailer," Arnold says. "One of the teachers fell through the floor." Even worse, Rise received an F after its first year. State officials warned that if scores didn't improve, Miami-Dade might shut down Rise.

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