Couple Hopes to Open Small School in Downtown Safety Harbor
Kathy and John Leone’s hearts are in downtown Safety Harbor.
After moving to town five years ago, the couple fell in love with the charm and history of the scenic downtown area as well as the many educational and entertainment options the district has to offer.
So when the Leones decided they wanted to start a small, Christian-based community school, one that combines the convenience of home schooling with the benefits of a physical location, they thought downtown Safety Harbor would be an ideal spot.
“It felt like the perfect location for what we wanted to do,” Kathy Leone told Safety Harbor Connect.
On Monday night, the Safety Harbor City Commission addressed the Leones request to amend the city code, which currently does not permit a school of general education within the Community Redevelopment District.
After hearing the couple’s impassioned plea to open the Harbor Christian High School in a vacant building at 108 Fourth Avenue South, the four commissioners in attendance expressed reservations about the request.
“My main concern is parking,” Mayor Andy Steingold said.
“I love education, but I’m concerned this could take away retail space in the CRD,” Commissioner Janet Hooper added.
While Commissioner Cliff Merz echoed the mayor’s parking concerns, Commissioner Carlos Diaz was supportive of the Leone’s plan.
“I think it adds diversity to the area,” he said. “It leads to synergy in the whole community.”
An “outside-of-the-box” idea
Kathy Leone is a longtime educator.
The New Jersey native was a teacher and an assistant principal in the Garden State and has taught at various grade levels for the past 14 years.
After moving here, she found that while there are many Christian-based schools in the area, most have expensive tuition fees that prevent some families from enrolling their kids there.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to open our school is to provide an affordable Christian school option in the county,” she said. “Some tuitions for such schools in the area are as high as $11,000 per year, and many families can’t afford that.”
So Kathy and John, a former Marine who works as a civilian employee for the government, decided to open their own community school, which is a school that combines elements of home schooling with traditional brick-and-mortar based learning.
“With this type of hybrid school, students attend three days a week, and then do a lot of studying at home,” she explained. “They may be doing a lab one day, have no school the next, and take a test on the third day. It’s a real outside-of-the-box way of thinking.”
Leone said students at their school would be required to pass an entrance exam and meet certain qualifications in order to be eligible to attend.
“We anticipate getting students who have been home schooled in the lower grades and are looking for alternative options for high school,” she said. “These would be highly motivated students, because it’s a high-level academic track.”
As the Leones researched the necessary requirements to open such a school, they also began searching for possible locations.
But they always had one specific area in mind: downtown Safety Harbor.
The “perfect location”
“We named it Harbor Christian High School because we always envisioned having it here,” Kathy Leone explained.
“We see what the downtown has to offer, and we thought how cool it would be for our kids to be part of that.”
The couple set about securing a location, and they found the vacant space on Fourth Avenue South, next to the Harbor Dish Community Café.
The building, the former home of a title company and an IT business, was ideal for the Leones.
“We looked at leasing space from a nearby church, but then we found this building next to Harbor Dish,” Kathy said. “Christine (Sauger) was so excited to have this school next to her. It felt like the perfect location for what we wanted to do.”
The setting allows the Leones to envision their staff and students embracing everything the downtown district has to offer.
“We would be taking full advantage of our surroundings,” Kathy said. “The kids could be part of the Civil War reenactments at the museum, participate in events at the library, intern at the Rigsby Center and walk to the marina for marine biology class.”
“This is not your typical hanging-out-causing-trouble group of kids,” she added. “They would be a very positive addition to the downtown area, especially during the daylight hours.”
Wait and hope
The Leones knew they had to petition the City Commission to allow a school to open in the downtown district, and they understood there would be concerns, such as parking and class sizes.
“There are nine parking spots on the property, and we have no problem having the staff park off-property,” Kathy said, noting the many public parking options in the downtown district.
She said they plan to start small, and although they eventually hope to grow, they want to keep the classes small and would look to move to another location if the school ever got too big.
“We plan to start with just ninth, or ninth and tenth, grade depending on the number of applicants,” she said. “We would never go beyond 15 students per grade — we want it to be a tight-knit group of students.”
“We anticipate adding a grade each year,” Leone added. “The biggest the school could ever get is 60 students – four grades with 15 kids in each. But we’ve done research, and a similar school in Florida took 15 years to get to 60 students.”
“There’s a huge need for these types of schools, but it’s still a niche market.”
After initially expressing reluctance to approving the Leone’s idea, the Commission agreed to look into things such as maximum occupancy and parking requirements, before voting on the issue.
“We’ll take a look at it, get the numbers, and we’ll have additional discussions and we’ll make a decision,” Mayor Steingold told the couple.
“We need to research all the aspects of the proposal,”City Manager Matt Spoor told Safety Harbor Connect, adding that the commission has to look at the big picture and not just focus just on the Leone’s case.
While the Leones wait for the results of the city’s findings, they hope the commission will eventually vote in their favor.
“They asked us if we looked at other locations and we said yes, but it takes away from what we want to do,” Kathy Leone said, adding they are open to any restrictions the city might impose.
“We’re not going to walk away if they limit us to 40 students. Having the school in downtown Safety Harbor is the main vision of our school.”
For more information on Harbor Christian High School, visit the school’s Facebook page.
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I think it would be a great addition to our downtown area and I will be happy to help you make it happen in anyway I can!
Tupelo on 4th
They would be training the younger generation and they will become wonderful assets to our community. I am all for this endeavor.
We need to have the younger generation here to demonstrate to our community that all younger people their age are not the type that is shown on the TV news for being in trouble. Thank you. My prayers are behind this 100 %.
Good idea but bad location. Only some of the kids will ride bikes and only some of the time.
Parents dropping off from both directions of Main St. will back up that street while 30-60 cars unload. Then where do they go? Right into the residential neighborhood. Too bad they didn’t think of this idea when the preschool on 7th St & 590 was available.
What a wonderful concept!! I hope and pray that the city passes this!!!
Wow. That would be SO great. I homeschool three boys in safety harbor who are, and are about to be, in high school. What a great option to have nearby. We wouldn’t need parking. They have bikes. 😉
We live about two miles from Downtown Safety Harbor, so parking wouldn’t be necessary for us either as my son would be able to ride his bike there. 🙂 I’m very excited about this prospect! 🙂
I am a 14-year resident of Safety Harbor and a 3-year downtown merchant. I am all for promoting education, especially this type of innovative school. I am, however, very concerned about the volume of parking it will generate on any given day. Everyone knows this is an ongoing issue in our town. Also, retail space is definitely scarce in the CRD. I was recently thinking about asking the Commissioners how or if they monitor and/or regulate the balance of retail/food+beverage/service merchant space on Main Street? Visitors need a good balance of places to dine and shop and retail is low right now. The face of Main Street and what it has to offer is important to attaining repeat visitors and commerce. We have many fine places to dine and drink. The legal, medical, financial, auto, real estate and other service industry merchants are important too but the foot traffic visitors need enough interesting things to see and do that will bring them back and we are weak in that area now on Main. I agree at looking at “the big picture” because changing regulations to allow other schools into the CRD will compete with the already little space we have in the downtown area–especially for retail and especially on Main.
I am impressed by this couple’s passion. However, as a Safety Harbor resident living near the downtown area, I don’t feel that this is the best place for a high school. Sure, this school plans to start small and stay small, but if the City Commission says yes to this, they’ll also agree to other schools in the future.
Sounds innovative and unconventional… which are the hallmarks of Safety Harbor. I hope the school and city are able to figure out the details to make it work.
Thank you so much for telling Harbor Christian’s story. Kathy and I are just two people among a whole host of believers who wish to bring up our children following God’s Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul and all of our might and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The construct itself is rooted in proven school models, including the wonderful school our own children attend. Quite a few families, and several local churches, have partaken in the work to make this school a reality, and many more have supported it with prayer, advice and financial support. We are blessed to be a small part of a wonderful and loving community that is bound together by our faith and desires to raise a generation of young adults that will show the world the love of Jesus Christ by serving other. We are very excited about the opportunities and challenges ahead and are grateful for the voice Safety Harbor Connect has given us.
John and Kathy
What a beautiful idea! I homeschooled my two children when they were in their early elementary years, and now I teach at a local Christian school. My daughter will be graduating from Calvary this year; however, my son will be starting high school in the fall of 2016. I’d be interested in more information about your school. We are Safety Harbor residents and absolutely love the community here. Your school sounds like it would be an excellent addition! I will be praying for your family as you move forward with this.