Collier school board makes plan for eCollier Academy, builds on-campus spot at Calusa Park

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The Collier County School District is looking to the future for eCollier Academy only months after launching the virtual learning model during the coronavirus pandemic.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, board members voted unanimously to approve a remodeling project contract for one of Calusa Park Elementary’s buildings to service eCollier Academy staff, students and parents. 

The construction project was already underway prior to board approval because it was “time sensitive,” according to board documents.

The district provided students four school options for this year: on-campus, Classroom Connect, eCollier Academy and home education.

The eCollier Academy allows students to learn with flexibility so school work can start late or early in a day depending on a family’s home situation.

The remodeling of one of Calusa Park’s buildings, which has about five classrooms, and nearby area is costing the district about $830,000. 

At the Tuesday board meeting, board Chairwoman Stephanie Lucarelli said she had concerns about the project’s permanence and running into problems down the line with the eCollier Academy learning model.

She did not want to move forward until teachers could share more about the eCollier Academy experience and how it impacts them. 

“I understand the need for them to have space, but if there is space there then what would the harm be in waiting a year to allow the teachers a year under their belt to say, ‘You know, this is what we could really use,'” Lucarelli said.

She still voted in favor of the project.

“This is something I want to see grow,” Lucarelli said. “Much of this had to be done because of the situation we are in. With all that being said, I hope that we don’t get into the habit of doing that.”

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Board member Jen Mitchell asked about logistics surrounding the project, including whether teachers were already using the space.

Superintendent Kamela Patton said the program’s 68 teachers and administrators started using the building at the start of the school year.

“They are already there,” Patton said. “They’ve been there since Day One.”

Teachers are using the building part-time, up to three days a week. They work from home in their remaining time to avoid a large congregation in the space.

Calusa Park is the work location for the administrative staff, the school counselor, licensed mental health professionals and any clerical staff.

The district hired administrators for the virtual learning school, including Principal Denise Lindheim, to oversee it.

More: Collier appoints, promotes principals at 8 schools ahead of upcoming school year

The contract with Fort Myers-based Owen-Ames-Kimball Company to create eCollier Academy’s space in the existing building was signed in early August in preparation for the start of school. The project is essentially complete, according to the district.

Peggy Aune, associate superintendent of teaching and learning, said it’s important for eCollier Academy to have its own space and identity. 

About 3% of Collier students are currently enrolled in the virtual learning model, according to the district. 

Expanding eCollier Academy and establishing its campus building started after consultation with other districts such as Pasco County, Patton said.

“It was very consistent that there needs to be a physical location for the school even though it’s largely a virtual model,” Aune said.

Board members Erick Carter and Roy Terry brought up the possibility that eCollier Academy could eventually expand to service students outside of the county, too.

Patton said about $3 million to $4 million is paid to Florida Virtual School each year for courses, which could be reduced if eCollier Academy and other teachers can teach those courses.

“It’s our own teachers teaching our own kids here in Collier, which we’ve never really been able to crack that,” Patton said.

The district is required by the state to provide at least three virtual learning options.

The school district is projecting to pay about $2.7 million this year for eCollier Academy costs, according to Bob Spencer, director of financial services for the district.

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at rfradette@gannett.com.

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Did you know?: A Gulf Coast Charter Academy South classroom is in quarantine due to close COVID-19 case

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