Forty minutes into an open house on Wadsworth Elementary’s new STEM Academy Wednesday evening, a parent asked the question likely on the minds of most of the 65 people in attendance: what will happen to Phoenix Academy?
Phoenix is the specialty elementary school the district developed five years ago as an experiment in education in a small setting, with an emphasis on technology. The school has been operating in the old school board building adjacent to Flagler Palm Coast High School. It has a loyal following among parents, but has been past its peak of more than 60 students. It ended the year with 33.
Wadsworth Elementary is starting a new school-within-a-school that takes after the Phoenix model. It’s heavily focused on technology, and even more focused on engineering—for fifth and sixth graders. But it would be more integrated in some of the school’s regular activities. Last week the school board approved “transitioning” Phoenix to the Wadsworth academy, but the board did not clarify whether that actually meant closing Phoenix for good. It was leaving that up to Phoenix parents’ reaction to the plan.
Wednesday evening’s open house was for those Phoenix parents, though the turn-out, which included school board members Janet McDonald and Andy Dance, former board member John Fischer, district and Wadsworth staff and the Flagler Technical Institute’s director, was a reflection of the importance Phoenix and its successor hold in the district’s eyes.
So when Vern Orndorff, the Phoenix principal and an administrator at the central office, was asked about the fate of the Phoenix, he couldn’t yet answer definitively: “At this time we can’t make that decision,” he said, noting that the open house will help answer the question. “As many of you know, what drives school decisions is funding. It comes down to funding. That’s why we’re looking at these programs—how would we best use our financial resources in providing these students with what we need to provide. We can’t fund a school with just 10 students. There’s just no way. That’s not fiscally responsible on our part, using your tax dollars. That’s what’s going to drive that decision.”
Less than two hours later, Orndorff and parents had their answer.
Martin Evans, the director of the STEM Academy—and a former assistant principal at Bunnell Elementary—had led the open house and charismatically outlined to parents and students what they can look forward to at the academy. He took them on a tour, almost evangelizing the benefits of the new program, showing them its high-tech lab (which includes two 3-D printers and innumerable tools most adults wouldn’t know what to make of), and described a day-to-day program that would combine flexibility with extra learning hours, rigor and the benefits of Wadsworth’s broader curriculum, such as wheel classes.
Martin then was back in the schol’s media center, counting the number of yellow applications parents had filled out to enroll their child in the new school.
The tally: 20. Twenty-one students, counting the one application that was for two siblings, John Fanelli, the Wadsworth principal, said. Fanelli had spoken with four additional sets of parents who’d not made it to the open house, three of whom were planning to enroll. The fourth moved to Volusia.
That, Fanelli said, means that 25 of the 33 Phoenix families were accounted for. Orndorff was planning to again reach out to the remaining eight, giving them first preference at enrolling in the STEM Academy by Monday. Beyond that date, it’ll be first come, first served, though half the slots have now been filled.
In essence, by 8 p.m. Wednesday evening, Phoenix’s fate was sealed. The school is no more. Orndorff acknowledged as much when he learned of the tally of students who’d enrolled at the Wadsworth Academy. (The Phoenix building is likely going to be the main administrative building of Flagler Technical Institute. Though that deal has not been sealed yet, it would provide another piece of the puzzle, until now not openly known, in the consequences of the Phoenix transition.)
“It’s been hard to think of Phoenix going away or transitioning to something different,” Fanelli acknowledged to the large group at the beginning of the open house.
“We’re offering you a transition. We feel it does both of us a good thing,” Evans said.
A parent asked how the new academy would be “superior” to Phoenix.
“Phoenix wasn;lt even in our thoughts when we developed this program,” Evans said. “But what I will say, from what I’ve heard in terms of where Phoneix has gone, is I think it was a program with a great vision,” with a high level of technology and things other schools weren’t doing. “I don’t think it’s like that anymore. I think it’s somewhat the norm of what Flagler County is doing. So if you were to ask me what makes us superior, I don’t think you’re going to see a lab like the one your students are going to work in at others schools. I don’t think you’re going to see other students in other schools participating in the high-level activities that we’re going to do at this school. So I hope I answered your question in terms of the word ‘superior.’ I’d love to say we’re going to be better. I really feel like we are. But that’s an opinion question that you have to decide.”
Evans then took everyone on the tour. And most did decide then and there.