A School with Skater Cred

Right when you walk into Kona Skate Park’s main building, the sense of history is all around you. Old-school skateboard decks and vintage photos of David Hackett, Tony Hawk and Danny Way fill the walls. Then you walk out the door and see it: Kona in all its glory. But while Kona’s history is something of legend, the future is what’s catching people’s attention now.

According to a January Reuters story, the national graduation rate has actually increased from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 78.2 percent in 2010. However, Duval County’s graduation rate as of 2012 was 67.69 percent, according to duvalcountyschools.org. New visions are being formulated to help boost that percentage. Enter Kona School.

The idea for an innovative new school was first conceived three years ago by two fathers, James Smith and Martin Ramos, during a skate contest in Daytona.

“What would I need to do?” Ramos, Kona’s second-generation owner, asked Smith about creating a charter school for at-risk teens within Kona Skate Park. Smith, a behavioral interventionist at Grand Park Alternative School, admitted he wasn’t too attracted to the idea at first.

“I never saw myself as an administrator,” Smith said. “I wanted to be directly involved with the kids. After researching in depth into how design can actually help kids in school, I was in.”

This enthusiasm came after his wife’s friend suggested meeting with Content Design Group, an architectural firm that Ramos and Smith call one of the project’s biggest supporters.

Smith’s research told him that natural light, cleaner air and a creative layout would help make the students more attentive, leading to more creativity. That information shaped the core elements the project will embody. Greg Beere, founder of Content Design Group, said the conversation with Smith was instrumental to the Kona timeline.

“The meeting reignited James’ fire,” Beere said. “It lead to him creating the curriculum, core elements and everything else.”

The core elements are project learning, parent and community engagement, personalized instruction, enterprise and entrepreneur skills, nutrition, exercise, facility and culture. By combining these elements into one goal, Smith said the school can build a bridge between students’ passions for action sports and an education they can obtain in the classroom.

Perhaps Kona School’s biggest achievement thus far was at One Spark: The project took first place in contributions, earning more than $5,500 between donations and crowdfunded prize money, and second place in technology.

“It was like we won the popularity contest,” Ramos said. “Hopefully that leads to more funding; they sort of go hand-in-hand.”

Ramos said they’ve raised nearly $10,000 since they began this project, but they need “tons” more. Smith added that $1.5 million is needed in order to build the school and run it initially; they plan to apply for grants and do more fundraising in the early stages of the project. After the first several years, they plan for the school to be self-sustaining. The money they’ve raised so far has gone to maintaining the website, developing curriculum, and marketing the school with posters, banners and prints at events.

“As soon as the money comes in, it goes right back into the project,” Ramos said.

They will host the second annual Go Skate Day at Hemming Plaza June 21; it’s a free event, but donations are encouraged. Smith said last year’s event drew nearly 3,500 people and raised roughly $3,000 in donations, enough to continue operations for several months, including the learning management system, the online tool that students will use to guide them through projects.

Ramos said it was a sign of a more progressive community coming together.

“It never would have had a chance 10 years ago,” Ramos said. “Now it’s a lot more accepted. The business community came out. People who were watching just got immersed into it.”

Ramos and Smith said that in addition to raising money, these events help increase the visibility of the Kona School concept.

What type of student is Kona School aiming to attract?

“A kid like myself,” Smith said, students who are creative, adventurous risk-takers, and who find themselves unable to connect their passion to an education.

“I never felt gifted in school, yet I was able to create a school design like this,” Smith said.

His vision is to provide students the tools and the opportunities to create a business plan during their high school years to start their own companies.

Ramos described himself as quite the daydreamer when he was a student. He said a school like Kona would have made learning much more interesting.

“I just wasn’t where everyone else was at,” Ramos said.

As a young skater, he grew up around Kona Skate Park. Now, 35 years later, he’s still following his passion and applying it to the school’s vision.

“It’s not just about skateboarding,” Ramos said. “Individual sports in general can help kids get focused.”

By giving active students fun and challenging opportunities, Ramos said they will feel more connected to the academic portion of their day.

Smith is serving as executive director. In his community outreach role, Ramos is recruiting a board of directors for the school.

“They will be the right people for the job, coming from the same type of surfer and skater background,” Ramos said.

Steven Davis, associate professor of education at Jacksonville University, has examined the project’s curriculum. He said that there is a big gap between where local education is now and where it could be 
with education.

“With the research I’ve done and the practical experience of training teachers, this idea fits right in with the results I found,” Davis said. “They have the right idea and the right people to do it.”

Davis is discussing a possible position with the school in the future.

Brian Mann, executive director and vice president of Florida Coast Career Tech Center, in his recommendation that the “idea of combining academics, action sports, nutrition and sustainability into a comprehensive middle and high school education is one of the most innovative secondary education concepts that I have ever seen.”

The school originated as a charter school concept, but the founders said it will be a private school, to allow them to stay ahead of teaching trends and technological advances. They estimate the annual tuition will be between $8,000 and $9,000.

While a projected date for the school’s opening was set for the fall of 2014, the school still needs a location and more investors to help fund the project before it can proceed. Beere said the modular concept of the school means it will be able to go anywhere.

“We’ve designed a macro campus using PODS,” Beere said. “It can be slid into an urban core or the beach. As it grows, we can add more.”

Smith said he hopes designing a school focused on students will build community support.

“By creating systems that enable students to have more authority in their own education,” Smith said, “it will give them more motivation and make them more successful.”