New school to open amid high hopes

The founders of a new charter school -- the first in Miami Beach -- are active in a controversial self-awareness group.

Miami Herald/July 16, 2006
By Matthew I. Pinzur and Rob Barry

For years, every attempt to open a charter school in Miami Beach has failed -- the process is arduous, the application is time-consuming and suitable land is hard to find.

The first possible charter school could open next month near the 79th Street Causeway, launched by a group of people who have little background in education and who are active in a self-awareness group known for its intensity.

''We had no idea [about opening a school], but whatever you don't know, you can learn,'' said Gladys Palacio, the school's director, who sold her janitorial-supply company to work full-time on the Charter on the Beach Middle School.

The idea was born during Palacio's work with Landmark Education, which runs self-improvement seminars and has a record of aggressive recruitment.

Palacio leads introductory seminars for the San Francisco-based company, which has no official connection to the school. Three of the six members of the school's board of trustees are involved with the group, as is the woman who owns the building that will house the school.

Some of the volunteers helping Palacio establish the school are also active. At a recent school open house, one offered to register a Miami Herald reporter for Landmark's introductory seminar.

But Palacio said she will not bring Landmark's programs onto campus.

''If people come to me, I'll tell them,'' Palacio said. "But I'd never tell [a student or parent] they should do this or you have to this.''

Some Miami Beach parents have been frustrated that Nautilus Middle School is their only public school option.

Nautilus had more than 1,200 seventh- and eighth-graders last year; Charter on the Beach will cap enrollment at 250.

That has created strong interest in the charter. A standing-room crowd of more than 200 attended an interest session last month, and 96 students signed up on the spot.

''I grew up going to small, private schools,'' said Palacio, who was raised in Kendall. "Why not give the community something like this?''

Intense seminars

Landmark has its roots in Erhard Seminars Training, or est, the personal-growth program created in the 1970s by ex-Scientologist Werner Erhard.

Its four-day introductory seminars were notorious for their grueling intensity -- there were few breaks in the 14-hour-plus days, windows were barred, doors were locked and people were even chained to beds, said David Bromley, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied the group.

Erhard dropped from public view in 1991 after selling the est system to Landmark, which is now operated by two siblings.

Landmark's methods were originally similar to est, Bromley said, but have reportedly moderated over the years.

''The accounts that I've been able to discover suggest that while some people did find even the original est degrading, a lot of people found it wildly liberating,'' he said. 'As it moderates, you still get those accounts of liberation, but fewer accounts of `Oh, they really pummeled me.' ''

One element that persists, he said, is the need to recruit new customers for its seminars, mostly for adults but some for children as young as 8 years old. They cost $425 for a four-day basic session and up to $3,600 for the most advanced programs.

''They're reliant largely on getting people who are impressed with the results they have experienced to go out and recruit for them,'' Bromley said. "That really is the only way they can continue.''

The company did not return calls Friday.

None of Landmark's practices will be part of Charter on the Beach's curriculum, Palacio said. Much of that curriculum has yet to be designed. Palacio said she hired a lead teacher to oversee the curriculum, but the woman did not return calls Friday. Textbooks have not been ordered, but Palacio said the classes will be crafted to go beyond preparing students for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

''One of the things that kills me is that my daughter, for a month [before the test], would be trained in taking the FCAT, totally unmotivated and bored and nervous,'' said Palacio, whose daughter is entering eighth grade and will attend the new school. "Kids can have fun and learn from their core and who they are.''

She has begun hiring teachers, all of whom need to be state-certified, and her curriculum needs to be approved by district administrators.

''It's not like we can just do whatever we want,'' she said.

District officials were unaware the school's founders were active in Landmark, but said that would not have affected the decision to grant the charter.

Palacio has an approved nonprofit group to run the school, and she and the board members were all fingerprinted and found to have no criminal record -- rules that will apply to their staff, as well.

As long as the school does not try to profit from its operation, assistant superintendent Michael Bell said the group has met all the qualifications.

''I can't see it being a problem,'' he said in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. "Should they violate their contract, the [School] Board has the option of terminating it.''

All new charter schools receive start-up money from the district; Palacio has already received almost $72,000. Once she documents expenses, she is entitled to $215,000 more.

Much of that will go into the building, an art gallery known as The Art Temple and owned by Italian musician Marivana Viscuso.

Viscuso met Palacio through Landmark and helped her found Charter on the Beach as an alternative to Nautilus.

''This is a very delicate age,'' said Viscuso, referring to middle schoolers. "You want to have a school in every neighborhood. So whoever tells them that Nautilus is enough, I don't think so.''

School site questions

Government officials have raised questions about whether the site is appropriate for a school. There are only 15 parking spaces -- Palacio said she rented eight more a few blocks away -- and the building has to be rezoned for a school.

Palacio said she expects the zoning to be approved later this month. Without it, the school cannot open until the 2007-08 school year.

The charter is not Palacio's first business relationship with a South Florida school district.

Earlier this year, Palm Beach County terminated her janitorial-supply company's contract to provide latex gloves, because it could not honor the price it had bid. She also was barred from doing business with the district for three years.

Palacio said her supplier raised prices, leaving her unable to fulfill the contract.

She also is being sued by Dade Paper & Bag Co. for a $50,000 debt for ''paper and plastic products,'' according to the suit.

Palacio said she only owes ''about $43,000,'' and Dade Paper rejected her offer to settle for $35,000.

''The company is not currently active and after having sold all assets, the only amount of money that is available to satisfy this debt is $35,000,'' Palacio wrote in a March 15 letter.

One of the reasons she decided to launch Charter on the Beach, Palacio said, was because she was no longer interested in her previous company.

During a three-month Landmark course called the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, she said she became excited about the idea of opening a school.

''One of the greatest things about Landmark is creating possibilities,'' she said.

The chairman of the school's board of directors, Pablo Landi, made similar discoveries about himself in Landmark programs.

''My passion in life is education. After going through different stages, that was what I found out,'' said Landi, a 29-year-old music therapist at Jackson Memorial Hospital and coach for one of Landmark's more advanced programs.

Landi and his fellow board members will oversee Palacio, managing the school's budget and having the power to set her salary, retain or fire her, and choose her replacement.

Palacio said she only intends to run Charter on the Beach for a year or two, then have the board find a new principal. She might help launch similar schools, she said, or move on to other projects.

''You create a program that inspires you, an expression of who you are,'' she said. "Then you give it to the community.''

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