Union Park Charter Academy is Wesley Chapel’s first charter school and is expected to open fully enrolled, with 615 students in grades K through 6. (Photo: Giuliano Ferrara)

Wesley Chapel’s first charter school will open this fall. Demand for the school is clearly high, as enrollment already is full and there’s a waiting list at every grade level.

Union Park Charter Academy — called “UPCA” and pronounced “UP-kuh” — has 615 students scheduled to start school in kindergarten through 6th grade when it opens for the first time on August 13.

One thing you won’t find is classrooms of kids filling notebooks that transcribe lectures. In fact, the rooms at the school aren’t even called “classrooms.”

“The design of the building allows us to really meet the personal needs of individual students,” says the school’s founding principal, Tracy Ware. “The design of the building is in communities. What’s exciting is that there are so many options.”

Instead of traditional classrooms, each grade level meets in a common area with all of the teachers for that grade level. Students then move into one of the spaces available to them. That might be a learning lab for larger groups of students and a teacher. Or, it could be an area with flexible seating where students sit on creative furniture, such as “wobble boards” (no worries about kids leaning back and toppling over a four-legged chair), or stand at a high-top table.

There also are areas for small group projects, where students can go inside a glassed-in room and work without distraction, but still in complete view of the teacher.

The school is responsible for teaching to state standards and testing using statewide standardized tests.

“What sets us apart is not what we teach — it’s how,” explains Ware. “We have opportunities to use more technology and divide children up based on learning style, with four teachers teaching the same curriculum at the same time, but bringing it to children in different ways.”

UPCA is the newest school by Charter Schools USA, which currently manages 84 schools in seven states, serving more than 70,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a contract — called a charter — with the local school district. Each charter school is independently governed by its own board of directors, and employees do not work for the local school district. However, Pasco County Schools is responsible for some oversight, ensuring that the school is in compliance with its charter and local, state and federal regulations.

Charter schools are required to be non-profit organizations.

As a charter school, it is a tuition-free option for parents looking for an alternative to the public school to which their child is assigned. This fall, Pasco County is expected to have 5,513 students enrolled in a total of 12 charter schools, with UPCA the only one located within Wesley Chapel, although a second charter school, Pinecrest Academy, is expected to open in 2019 at a site to be determined.

Ware was previously an education cluster manager responsible for leading and coaching principals and senior leadership teams using international standards she practiced while serving as a principal in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Abu Dhabi, she opened a grades K-5 school, where she promoted clear collaborative relationships between staff members with various backgrounds from all over the world.

“Ms. Ware is the perfect fit for our new innovative school opening in Wesley Chapel,” said Charter Schools USA’s Michelle Thompson, the company’s regional director of education for Florida’s west coast. “We knew we needed someone who will approach educational solutions from an entirely new mindset as we open a brand-new school with such an open and collaborative environment.”

A Focus On Technology

In addition to the innovative building, another unique aspect of UPCA is its focus on technology.

“Technology gives us more opportunities to reach students,” says Ware, explaining that smart technology will be used throughout every learning community, including an iPad issued to every student in grade 3 and higher.

“Teachers can flip the classroom,” because of this technology, explains Ware. Instead of traditional homework — where Wade says that incorrect practices can actually hurt a student’s ability to learn something correctly — a teacher can use video or other means to introduce a lesson at home that will be experienced the next day at school.

In addition, Ware says she’s excited about the level of involvement she’s already seen from the parents of the students who plan to attend. Many students can walk or bike to school, she says, and more than 90 parents signed in to the school’s first Parent Teacher Co-Op meeting (similar to a PTA).

The school’s students have already voted to choose its mascot, which is the Comets.

“The things that really set this school apart are its design, our use of technology, parental support and community investment,” says Ware. “Students have an opportunity to be innovative and creative, and that’s what we’ll provide at Union Park.”

Ware says that although there is a waiting list, interested parents should not be discouraged from applying, because some students who are enrolled now may not attend due to relocations or other factors.

“Even if they’re on the waiting list,” Ware explains, “there’s a good chance they could be enrolled this fall.”

Union Park Charter Academy is under construction at 32775 Oldwoods Ave. in Wesley Chapel. For more information, stop by its temporary office at 3830 Turman Loop, #101, between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, call (813) 358-7306 or visit UnionParkAcademy.org.

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