Patel Charter High School To Use Business Leaders As Mentors

Work is progressing on the Patel Charter High School, due to open in August. (Patel High School)

TEMPLE TERRACE, FL – Through the vision of a Tampa Bay philanthropist, Hillsborough County high school students will have an opportunity to attend a first-of-its kind charter school in August.

Builders are now putting finishing touches on the county’s first Project-Based Learning charter school at 10721 Raulerson Road off U.S. 301 in the Thonotosassa/Temple Terrace area.

Named for its founder, the Dr. Kiran Patel High School will focus on providing students with 21st-century skills to prepare them for whatever career they intend to pursue.

Patel, who started the billion-dollar health care plan company Wellcare in 1985, has donated $20 million to create the new high school on a 30-acre site that will eventually include a separate elementary and middle school.

Visible from Interstate 75, the 67,000-square-foot school with an 11,000-square-foot gymnasium looks more like a corporate headquarters than a free public charter school.

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When completed in June, the school will include an amphitheater, music room, soccer field, baseball field and tennis courts.

"It’s going to be a truly amazing school and an amazing resource for the community," said co-founder and board member Ash Bagdy of New Tampa.

Its location within the Interstate 75 tech corridor was strategic, Bagdy said.

"We wanted a central location with access to all the industries available in the University of South Florida area," said Bagdy.

That’s because one of the school’s missions is to facilitate mentorships with business leaders in high-demand fields – science, medicine, education, robotics, information technology, etc… Mentors will team up with students to provide them with real-world experience in the careers they’re interested in.

Patel said the beauty of charter schools is they are able to offer all advantages of private schools without the high cost, said Patel.

"Students have the option of getting an education that is equivalent to a private school at zero cost," he said.

Additionally, charter schools don’t have the confining parameters of traditional public schools, he said.

"With charter schools, there is a significant amount of autonomy compared to public schools," said Patel. "The teachers can operate in a less rigid environment, one that hasn’t been determined by someone sitting in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C."

"If I could build a school from scratch, literally like we’re doing, this is what I would build," said the school’s principal, Marlee Strawn.

Strawn, a former advanced placement teacher for Hillsborough County Schools who spent the past five years as the assistant principal of curriculum at Bell Creek Academy charter school in Riverview, said the mentorships program and the charter school’s focus on Project-Based Learning sets it apart from other charter schools in the county.

"The mentorship program will provide students with real-life experience throughout their four years of high school," she said. "Students can explore and decide what careers excite them."

At the same time, the Project-Based Learning model will teach communications skills, critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, commitment, responsibility and other character-building skills that employers are looking for today," Strawn said.

Project-Based Learning is a method of teaching that encourages students to learn by engaging in experiences rather than sitting in classrooms and taking notes.

"As far as I know, there’s not another school centered around Project-Based Learning in the county," said Strawn.

With Project-Based Learning, teachers take on the role of facilitators, proposing a question or challenge, then letting students explore and solve the challenge within a group.

The end product could be a research paper or presentation, said Strawn.

"It’s a different take on learning," said Strawn. "It allows students to think about things in a different way."

The school’s architects have designed the high school with the Project-Based Learning model in mind.

The lounge area will be furnished with couches and movable seats to encourage students to collaborate.

There will be maker spaces, movable classroom furniture and walls, and breakout study rooms, all intended to accommodate small groups.

Even the hallway is adapted for Project-Based Learning with nooks where students can meet and exchange ideas.

The school’s lunch period will be known as the "Power Hour." Students will have extended time to participate in open labs, clubs and tutoring sessions, meet with teachers, catch up on assignments and collaborate on projects with peers.

Patel High School students will still be required to take core classes. But they’ll have the option of watching online lectures and participating in online discussions to fulfill these mandatory requirements.

"It’s going to be unlike any other school, that’s for sure," said Strawn. "It’s an environment that I feel strongly is beneficial for every level and every way students learn."

The new charter school will open with 300 students and 12 teachers, eventually expanding to 600 students and 24 teachers by its third year, she said.

"We’ll always be a relatively small school, so we can do Project-Based Learning well," said Strawn.

She added that enrollment is open to any student in the county.

"We are not selecting students," she said. "We are truly open to a broad base of students who would like to experiment with a change."

Enrollment opened in February and 250 of the 300 slots are already filled.

Patel said the new charter school has received a warm reception from both the business community and parents.

"This area needs a change. It needs opportunities," he said.

There’s a reason many of Patel’s philanthropic pursuits have focused on education.

"I am where I am for only one reason. My parents gave me the education," he said. "You may hear stories of people who haven’t graduated from high school or college becoming rich but those are rarities. The most effective tool is education. And once somebody is educated, no one can take that education away from them. It can break the cycle of poverty and crime. It’s the best gift. If you have education, you can conquer the world."

In September 2017, Patel and his wife, Dr. Pallavi Patel, provided a $150 million donation to build a Nova Southeastern University campus in Clearwater and $50 million to support Nova Southeastern University’s schools of osteopathic medicine and health care sciences.

In November, Patel pledged $2.5 million for a new early-learning center, gym and computers at Hillsborough County’s Shaw Elementary School. The school has a large percentage of students in the free or reduced price lunch program.

In 2005, the Patels gave $18.5 million to USF to establish the Patel Center for Global Solutions, a research center focused on solving developing-world problems in sustainable ways. In 2012, the Patels gave USF an additional $12 million to elevate the center to the Patel College of Global Sustainability.

And, currently, Patel is building a university in India, a first step in what he hopes will provide better education opportunities to third-world countries.

"A private university in India and Africa can educate students at a fraction of the cost of universities in the United States," he said.

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Dwayne Bradford