JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Nature Coast's first semester dashed hopes that everything would run perfectly, but now the staff, equipment and students are starting to live up to expectations.
BROOKSVILLE - When Nature Coast Technical High School opened in August, it won accolades for its sleek design, its state-of-the-art equipment and its educational promise.
Expectations and excitement ran high as students and teachers took possession of the school that had been under construction for two years. In many cases, engineering teacher Aaron Kincaid said, people had "that elusive utopian dream that everything would be perfect the first day."
But the first semester did not go without its problems. Around campus, folks use the term "growing pains."
Students didn't begin working in vocational labs as quickly as some wanted; nearly 10 percent, mostly upperclassmen, transferred to other schools during the first few weeks. Technical glitches, especially with the telephone system, cropped up. Planned initiatives across the curriculum didn't take off.
Just within the past month or so, the Nature Coast family started to sense that things had begun to click.
"I think we've crossed that barrier," English department chairwoman Susan Carroll said Tuesday. "It's like we own the place now."
Or, as recently hired culinary arts instructor Peter Diulio put it: "We're cooking with gas."
Students, interviewed at random, largely agreed.
"It's, like, better than any other school in the county," sophomore culinary arts student Lindsey Karpinski said. "In the beginning (before Diulio was hired), we just sat in the classroom for two hours doing nothing. . . . Now we're cooking, so it's better."
During the first months, sophomore engineering student Steve Kesselring found courses frustrating as teachers moved slowly toward the labs.
Now the school is meeting expectations, he said, "because everything is starting to get more organized."
Principal Tizzy Schoelles, an admitted perfectionist, said she, too, wanted the school to be further along in its curriculum than it is. She noted that she did not have all the student and teacher information she needed until late July, making it nearly impossible to create a "cluster pure" schedule for this year.
That meant students were not completely separated by their vocational clusters, such as cosmetology and performing arts, as intended. Instead of each cluster infusing its lessons and projects with its own theme, the English courses drove the thematic units, such as "crime and punishment."
"I feel like I have disadvantaged some students and some staff," Schoelles said. "I do feel like we could have done some better things, or some more things, if I had laid a better foundation."
She noted other troubling areas.
A couple of teachers resigned after just a few weeks. At least five teachers began seeing doctors for stress-related ailments. And the staff found large numbers of students failing to complete homework assignments.
"It is an absolute bone of contention with most of the teachers here," Schoelles said. "The students are habitually not performing in their homework. It seems to be epidemic proportions. As a result, some students are failing because we haven't backed off. And that's frustrating."
After ticking off a list of concerns, Schoelles stopped herself. As a manager, she said, it is easy to focus on things going wrong, in order to make things better. But Nature Coast is, she said, on its way to being what she and others want.
"Let me tell you what I think is going well," she said.
The school opened with 313 students who had failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at least once. When they took the FCAT in October, Nature Coast students passed with greater success rates than the district and state averages.
Students who have not done well in school before are finding their niche at Nature Coast, Schoelles said. "That's a big positive."
Vocational components of the program have taken off after a slow start. Culinary arts students made gingerbread houses for their midterm exam and catered the staff holiday party to rave reviews. Students taking information technology courses are creating a 3-D CD-ROM yearbook. Through a daily program where everyone on campus drops everything to read a book of their choice for 20 minutes, the school has become literature-rich, she added.
"Academically, they're feeling the challenges," Schoelles said. "They're seeing the applied side of education."
Most encouraging, she said, students and teachers alike have accepted each other and the goal of seeking excellence in all areas. And they seem happy, she said: "The ones who are here in the programs have really good things to say."
Sophomore Mitch Gonzalez, who came to Nature Coast from Central High, is among those who praise the school. He came for the performing arts program, and has found success as drum major in the marching band and a lead tenor in the chorus, among other ventures.
"I have spread out my wings further in fine arts than ever at Central," Gonzalez said. "Here, I've learned more in one semester than I did in a whole year."
He praised Schoelles and the staff for pushing students to stretch in search of the best.
"Everyone is fighting for the same goal, to strive for excellence," he said. "That's why I think this school is so great."
Junior Miriam Roebuck, also in performing arts, said she immediately fell in love with the school. Students felt free to be themselves, with all the opportunities that come with newness, she said.
"Here at Nature Coast, we're able to breathe," Roebuck said.
She likes that the school challenges students academically, and also provides technical education that can be put to use on the job. Best of all, she said, the people who attend and work at Nature Coast care about one another.
"It's a blessing to be surrounded by those people who not only want the best for you, but can share with you," Roebuck said. "I never had that at Central. You felt you weren't important."
Schoelles called it a "culture of belonging."
Many students see it the same way.
"I moved down here from New York about a year ago. This school makes me feel like I'm at home," said junior Billy Hughes, who added that his grades have improved. "There's a sense of home in the classroom."
Sophomore Amber Collard saw herself heading down the wrong path at Springstead High. Nature Coast changed her for the better, she said.
"People care. They want you to do better," said Collard, one of two girls on the football squad. "Everyone's got a smile on their face. Everyone says "hi' in the hallway. Everyone is like family."
The school also meets student interests.
Freshman Austin Batchelder said his graphics design classes get him through the day, whereas the usual high school courses do not hold his interest.
"It's a whole lot more than what I wanted it to be," Batchelder said. "Mr. (Trevor) Barlow is basically the only reason I like this school a lot. . . . My good day at school is when I go to his class, because I get to play on the computers."
His parents couldn't be more pleased.
"Austin never was one to look forward to going to school," his dad, Mike Batchelder, said. "Now, he's into graphic arts and cheerleading, and he really looks forward to going to school. He's doing better in his academic career than ever before."
Teachers say they are thriving, too.
"It is the most amazing atmosphere I've ever been a part of," said Carroll, the English department head.
"I love it," technology teacher Brent Benware said. "I wake up every morning and look forward to coming to work."
English teacher Dianne Shrieves said everyone on campus gives 120 percent to help each other, which is gold in the education world. More, she said, the school's instructional mission makes more sense to her than any other she has followed during her 30-year career.
"I've never felt as good about what I do, and as challenged," she said. "There's no other place I'd be."
All said, Schoelles has high hopes that the curriculum will fall into place, and technology will be put to better use, during the coming semester and years to come.
"I don't know that anyone has higher expectations than I do," she said. "I find myself saying every day, "Don't push.' There is a fine line between the carrot on the end of the stick being attainable and too far away that you lose the vision."
Chocachatti Elementary principal Michael Tellone, whose school opened in 1999, has told Schoelles that things will really gel in three years. And she agreed.
"But we are so on the way," Schoelles said.
- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115 or firstname.lastname@example.org