School administrators Bradley Warren and Cheryl Cendan spent a lot of time inside the Starbucks and Panera cafes on State Road 70, just off Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, earlier this year.
Not necessarily for a double shot of espresso or a Green Passion smoothie. But instead to meet individually with hundreds of Lakewood Ranch parents who wanted to learn about the charter school the duo was helping to launch.
During those nosh sessions, the school — Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy, a tuition-free public charter school — was as far as 10 months away from opening. There wasn’t even a temporary office, much less a school to tour, hence the cafe conversations.
But the excitement was palatable. “It was nonstop,” says Cendan, principal of the upper school, ninth through 12th grades. “We sometimes met with 10 or 12 parents in one day.”
The pair has experience in charter school administration, including running schools in Hillsborough County under the same parent charter company as Lakewood Ranch Prep — Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA. Lakewood Ranch residents, Cendan and Warren are the public faces of Lakewood Ranch Prep, which opened Aug. 10 on White Eagle Boulevard.
“It’s so exciting to open a new school,” says Cendan, who, among other posts in her education career previously worked in curriculum administration for the Manatee County School District. “I tell people it’s like having a baby. It’s such an unbelievable experience — something you’ll never forget.”
Public charter schools operate under a performance contract, or a “charter” with the state, which frees the school from traditional public school regulations while holding them accountable for academic and financial results. Jon Hage, onetime head of research for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s public policy organization, founded Charter Schools USA in 1997. A for-profit entity, Charter Schools USA operates schools in five states across the Southeast, including 14 Florida districts. It has one other school in Manatee County — Manatee Charter School in Bradenton.
Florida is a national leader in approving public charter schools, which can be controversial in some states. That’s partially due to the counterintuitive nature, with curriculums that sometimes focus on certain disciplines, from science to arts. Lakewood Ranch Prep, for example, is utilizing the WISH model, which stands for wellness, innovation, science and health. Some highlights of the WISH program include personalized learning plans; learning villages; partnerships with community members, organizations and businesses; and health science studies.
Beyond that, the school’s north star, says Warren, is individualized education. “We want to teach kids where they’re at. We’re not a one-size-fits-all school.”
That go-their-own-way, non-traditional approach to education has been divisive in some states, such as New York — and sometimes Florida — but has also won charter schools many fans. That includes not only administrators, but teachers and parents. Charter schools, by statute, have lotteries for student enrollment. Lakewood Ranch Prep, with an initial enrollment in K-sixth grades and ninth grade of 740 students, had some 1,500 applications, and there’s a waitlist for every grade.
One excited Lakewood Ranch Prep parent is Country Club East resident Eleni Gagnon. A Long Island transplant, Gagnon and her husband began tracking the progress of Lakewood Ranch Prep in early 2022. They met with Cendan and Warren and quickly signed up their 5-year-old daughter, Mia, for kindergarten.
One aspect that stood out to the Gagnons? The village concept, where a team of teachers has a group of students in learning pods with flexible seating. Those teachers collaborate and plan together. And the Gagnons were sold not only on the school’s mission, but on Cendan and Warren. “A lot of schools can have the bells and whistles, but it takes strong leaders to make it work,” says Eleni Gagnon. “We really felt their passion.”
That excitement stretches to teachers, too. Cendan says recruiting teachers, given the statewide shortage, was far easier than they thought. Many prospective teachers reached out to the school after seeing Facebook posts about it — even before recruitment ads went out.
Warren says many of the teachers they interviewed shared a similar story: in looking for a new school, they sought more autonomy, more freedom within learning approaches and a deeper connection with students.
“We don’t want very good teachers,” says Warren. “We want great teachers.”