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

Gemma Torcivia's dream is over.

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.

But Torcivia, Arnold, and ten other teachers persevered. They moved to the building on Lucy Street, added second and seventh grades, and hired six more instructors. An assistant principal named Christy McIntyre moved down from Chicago after hearing about the school. Everyone tutored without extra pay at least two days a week, sometimes Saturdays.

Mason Matheson attended first and second grades at Rise, as well as after-school and summer tutoring. The 8-year-old is a tiny, brown-haired Dennis the Menace in oversize clothes. His father, Jim, who works for the military, says Mason was a year behind after attending kindergarten at a nearby school. When a Rise teacher came to their door and told them about the school, Matheson signed up his son.

Sitting at his dining room table, Matheson leafs through his son's test scores as well as a letter urging the School Board to keep Rise open. "This year, he pulled straight A's all year long," he says as Mason and older brother Devin play Nintendo in the next room. Matheson says that as a member of Rise's parent-teacher association, he spent $1,100 of his own money to help pay for field trips. He fixed 20 computers for the school, and every time he went grocery shopping, he spent an extra $100 on food for the cash-strapped school.

"To me, it's unfathomable that they shut the school down, especially considering four out of five of the other schools around here are either D's or F's," he says angrily. "Pardon my French, but the rest of the schools around here are shitholes."

Like Matheson, Wanda Kendrick saw her 13-year-old son Roddrick reading scores skyrocket. "The progress was amazing," she says. "No other school would teach them, but the teachers there kept talking about getting him prepped for college."

Soon, however, a disagreement between Rise and the school district over free-lunch funding devolved into a standoff. Rise was forced to take out a $200,000 loan after county officials refused to pay for subsidized students, even though many qualified. "Rise didn't have to feed those kids," Torcivia says. "But was I not going to feed a hungry 5-year-old who showed up without any food at his house? Of course we were." As the argument dragged on, relations between Rise and the school district soured.

"By the end of this year, you could feel the animosity," Arnold says. "We had to spend a lot of time defending what we were doing."

The last day of school, an assistant superintendent's office told Torcivia that Rise would have to close. Most of the allegations against the school were easily disprovable. "It says here that we failed to provide 'classrooms that display/contain literary-rich, instructional-based visual aids and resources,'" Torcivia says. "That's ridiculous!" She and her staff prepared more than 100 pages of evidence against the report, including photos. But at a School Board meeting, she was given two minutes to defend Rise. It wasn't enough. Torcivia kept her message simple: Wait for the FCAT results.

"Why wouldn't you wait for the test results?" Torcivia wonders. "If you're going to say that the FCAT is the end-all be-all of determining whether schools are going to be successful, then stick to it. "

Instead, the School Board voted to shut down Rise. The next day, June 17, Torcivia and her teachers arrived to find cop cars waiting for them. Torcivia sat at her desk and answered questions for two hours before handing over her keys.

"It just seemed like they weren't giving us the benefit of the doubt," says Arnold, who has given up on teaching and applied for unemployment benefits. The school had its problems — including financial difficulties — she admits. "But the kids did really well on the FCAT because they and the teachers worked hard all year." When the scores came out June 29, they showed the biggest improvement of any school in the county: Percentage-wise, twice as many sixth-graders at Rise passed the exam as students the same age at nearby Campbell Drive Middle School, a traditional public school.

Those scores — and Rise's recent A grade — have bolstered Torcivia's case for reopening, but the appeal isn't likely to be heard until September. She also filed a lawsuit in June demanding Rise be kept open while the appeal was pending, as required by state law. This past August 4, the school district claimed Rise had not accounted for $117,000 in state funds or turned over property, including a pickup truck. But that had already been spent on paying teachers, says Glen Torcivia, Gemma's father and Rise's lawyer. "There is no money left in the bank account, and all of it was spent the way it was supposed to be," he says.

Meanwhile, Rise teachers are mostly unemployed and still waiting for their last two paychecks. Torcivia admits it is now too late for the school to reopen when the academic year begins August 23. Her dream is dead, or at least on hold. Next to the school's shell, a massage parlor and a shoe store still do brisk business.

Looking through the window at the place she spent five years building, the ex-principal points at an American flag and a small neon-yellow sign that reads, "Bully Free Zone."

"That's all they left."


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