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Summit Charter School | Photo © 2019 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Summit Charter School

City/Town:
Location Class:
Built: 1983 | Abandoned: 2011
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Central Florida Christian School

The old Summit Charter School was built in 1983 as the Central Florida Christian Church for the Citadel of Faith and Freedom.

The Citadel of Faith and Freedom was founded in 1964 by Reverend Arthur A. Froehlich, pastor of the Maitland Bible Presbyterian Church, to promote Christian education. Froehlich was also editor of the Faith and Freedom Bulletin in which he warned people that “sex education courses are part of a well designed plan to so weaken the United States morally and spiritually that, as Khrushchev bragged, ‘American hands will be the ones to fly the Red Banners of Communism over the White House.'” Among other things, he believed that the general acceptance of homosexuality, pornography, and all forms of drugs, including alcohol, was the work of the devil.

The following year, the reverend and his wife, Dr. Esteleen Froehlich started the Central Florida Christian School where he served as the school’s administrator. Esteleen graduated from Florida Southern College, received her doctorate from Rollins College, and served as the school’s principal. Located at 1205 North Maitland Avenue, the school building was constructed in 1966 and could accommodate 200 students, with an auditorium added to the building in 1977.

Summit Charter Schoo 1
The Central Florida Christian School in the 1970s, before it burned down. The Orlando Sentinel

1981 Fire Destroys School

On the night of February 7, 1981, a large fire broke out at the Central Florida Christian School. Seminole County, Maitland, and Altamonte Springs fire departments responded to the call shortly after 7 p.m. By then, the fire was “through the roof.” The entire building was destroyed including books, records, desks, and typewriters, leaving behind just the building’s concrete foundation. The loss was estimated at $500,000 of which only $100,000 was insured.

The fire marshall soon found that the school building didn’t meet fire codes as it lacked fire barriers in the attic. A fire inspector would have noticed the absence of these barriers, and the inspection would have been conducted by the local fire department. Orange County, though, had no record of ever inspecting the building because no fire department had jurisdiction over the area the school was located in.

The following day, a sheriff’s deputy found two boys, ages 13 and 16, with a stolen truck located not far from a plumbing company where three pickup trucks and a Volkswagon were stolen the previous month. The two brothers were found responsible for not only the theft of those vehicles but also the theft of another pickup truck from a neighboring business in December. They were charged with five counts of grand theft auto and three counts of burglary and criminal mischief over $1,000.

After questioning them further, investigators found the two brothers, along with a third brother, were responsible for setting the Central Florida Christian School on fire while they were in the process of burglarizing the school. They were charged and found guilty of second-degree arson.

Central FL Christian School fire
The Central Florida Christian School the night that it burned to the ground in 1981. George Remaine, The Orlando Sentinel

New School Building

The Froehlich’s made plans to rebuild the school but were having difficulty raising funds until Crockett Log and Timber Homes, a New Hampshire home building company, donated pine logs and other construction materials. The new school building was designed identical to the old building. According to a company spokesman, six miles of logs were used in its construction.

Orange County issued a building permit in May 1982. Described as a “log cabin“, the 16,000-square-foot school was built primarily by volunteer carpenters and electricians from local unions along with church volunteers and some college students. It featured 13 classrooms, two storage rooms, two offices, and several bathrooms. The building was also described as being “almost fireproof” because the logs were specially treated.

The building was expected to be occupied by the end of the Summer of 1982, but construction wasn’t completed until the Fall of 1983. Even then, it was still weeks before they were granted a certificate of occupancy over an issue regarding which party was responsible for providing water in the case of a fire.

christian school fire
Construction of the new school building began in May 1982. John Gholdston, The Orlando Sentinel

Closure

In 1981, the same year as the fire, Arthur Froehlich began suffering from a brain tumor and died five years later on September 29, 1986. Esteleen Froehlich died on September 16, 1991. Since the fire, the school never truly recovered and by the time of their deaths, enrollment had dropped from 150 to seven students.

Richard Miller, whose wife was a school alumna, was made principal by the school’s trustees in 1992. The walls were repainted, new playground equipment was installed, and four teachers were ready for 50 kindergarten through eighth-grade students enrolled for classes. Unfortunately, that would be their final semester before its closure.

Master’s Academy

In June 1993, the building was leased by The Master’s Academy (TMA) which utilized it as a middle school. At the time, TMA was already operating an elementary school at Prarie Lake Baptist Church and a high school at Aloma Baptist Church. The following year, the $800,000 facility was donated to them by the board of directors of the Central Florida Christian School. TMA sold the facility in 2000 and continues to operate to this day on a 33-acre campus located off of Lukas Lane in Oviedo.

Summit Charter School

Summit Charter School opened in 2000 at the former Central Florida Christian School and served students with learning disabilities in kindergarten through eighth grade. It wasn’t long though before the troubles began.

In 2003, Summit Charter’s top two administrators attempted to sell products to the school that they had developed, but the Orange County School Boarded stopped the sale. As a result, the School Board denied paying President Alan Smolowe and Principal Steven Palmer $20,000 for consulting services and banned them from serving on the charter’s board for five years.

By 2008, the school was deeply in debt and was audited by the Orange County school district. The audit revealed that Principal Steven Palmer was being paid $217, 654 a year, which by comparison, an average principal’s salary in the county is $83,000 a year. The school also paid Holly Wilkey, an office manager, and Palmer’s sister, $45,500 a year. Yashmin Moledina, a bookkeeper, was also being paid $122,000 a year.

The audit also revealed that Steven Palmer and Alan Smolowe had purchased two cars through the school, and later traded them in for a $47,000 truck. The two men racked up “questionable expenditures” of more than $15,000 for meals, hotels, airlines, and other travel expenses. Because there were no receipts, the auditors could not determine if any of the trips were for the benefit of the school. All this was done without approval by the school’s board of directors. It was also difficult to notice as bookkeeping records were altered and Summit’s tangled finances included eight accounts in four banks.

Summit Charter School | Photo © 2019 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com
The front entrance of the school

Closure

The school filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 but continued serving students with learning disabilities and receiving money from the district. Even with leadership changes, the school remained unable to pay bills and salaries. Paychecks were running a month late and it was also reported that during this time, the heating and air-conditioning were constantly breaking down, forcing students to wear mittens indoors during the colder months.

Summit’s troubles were not unique among the state’s 300 charter schools. An Orlando Sentinel investigation in 2007 showed that many operate with little oversight and accountability. The investigation showed, among other things, that about half of the state’s charter schools had operating deficits or questionable business relationships with founders or board members.

Summit’s longstanding financial problems led to the closure of its two other campuses in 2007 and 2009. By 2010, the school still had $2.5 million in secured debt, including $1 million for the Maitland campus. Ultimately, the Summit Charter School was shut down in 2011.

2022 Fire

On June 11, 2022, firefighters responded to a 2-alarm fire at the former Summit Charter School around 11:30 a.m. Firefighters from Orange and Seminole counties assisted Maitland firefighters in battling the flames which proved much more difficult due to the heat and humidity of the day. Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation, the likely cause is arson.

References

Orlando Evening Star. (June 6, 1966). CENTRAL FLORIDA CHRISTIAN SCHOOL building is now being erected…

The Orlando Sentinel. (September 22, 1991). Obituary for Dr. Esteleen Froehlich

The Orlando Sentinel. (October 1, 1986). Obituary for Arthur A. Froehlich

Orlando Evening Star; Bret Gray. (June 3, 1969). Froehlich, Sex Education Part of Subversive Program

The Orlando Sentinel. (February 11, 1981). School-fire suspects held in car thefts

The Orlando Sentinel. (April 14, 1981). 3 brothers found guilty of arson in fire that gutted Maitland school

The Orlando Sentinel; Kathryn Kruger, Jim Leusner. (February 8, 1981). Blaze guts private school in Maitland

The Orlando Sentinel; Joel Kilsheimer, Goldie Blumenstyk. (February 10, 1981). School destroyed by blaze didn’t meet fire code, investigator says

The Orlando Sentinel; Sara Roen. (May 19, 1982). Log cabin to be school’s new home

The Orlando Sentinel; Deborah Burstion-Wade. (October 30, 1983). Fire protection loss won’t prevent opening of school

The Orlando Sentinel; Kirsten Gallagher. (August 16, 1992). Christian school rises again from its ashes

The Orlando Sentinel; Tammie Wersinger. (May 12, 1994). Master’s Academy celebrates passing of the torch

Rob Patton. (retrieved June 15, 2022). The School burns, AGAIN!

Bullet

David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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