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New school offers second chance

Students of Bayside High, an alternative school, leave old quarters for a new building at 14405 49th St. N.

Published October 19, 2004

CLEARWATER - It was midsummer when Richard Ditullio decided to give up on school.

The 17-year-old had failed all of his classes and had 82 unexcused absences, which meant he would be repeating his freshman year at Northeast High a third time.

His mother, Tonja Isaac, suggested he enroll in General Educational Development, or GED, classes. Then she found out about a new alternative high school for students who have been unsuccessful in traditional schools.

After nearly 12 weeks, Ditullio's grades are better, his attendance is up and he looks forward to going to school.

"I was always told I needed a diploma to succeed, but I never thought it would happen for me," he said. "Now I wake up every morning feeling a lot better about myself."

Ditullio and 134 other ninth- through 12th-graders who attend Bayside High, the Pinellas district's first long-term alternative school, moved into a new 90,000-square-foot building Monday after starting the year in temporary headquarters at the old Dunedin Highland Middle School. The new facility at 14405 49th St. N eventually will serve about 500 students identified as habitual truants, too old for their grade level and off track for graduation.

It also will serve students who have completed terms at secondary reassignment or disciplinary schools but are not ready to return to their original schools, and those making the transition from juvenile justice programs. They may or may not have discipline issues in addition to academic challenges.

Cathy Fleeger, an assistant superintendent in charge of high schools, said placement there is voluntary.

"It's just another alternative to give parents some options for success," she said.

Students who apply to Bayside High are assessed to make sure the program is right for them, said Bayside principal Philip Wirth.

"We're not going to tolerate any kind of misbehavior that would jeopardize the educational process or the safety of any student," he said. "We have the ability to say we're not a good fit."

Bayside has a strict dress code: no backpacks, no logos on clothing, no open-toed shoes. A cadre of support personnel, including a social worker, a school psychologist and a behavior specialist provide extra resources.

Bayside will keep students until they graduate. The school will offer a "diploma exit option" beginning next semester that will grant a performance-based standard diploma - as opposed to a credits-based diploma - to students who complete GED classes, pass the GED test and pass the FCAT.

Fleeger and Wirth count on the school to help lower the dropout rate. Classes are capped at 22 students to ensure individual attention. Block scheduling lets students earn more credits to make up missed classes.

While the per-pupil cost at Largo High School last year was $3,454, the district projects a first-year per pupil cost of $6,661 for Bayside students.

"When you look at the cost of incarcerating individuals versus the cost of educating them, it's three to four times that amount," he said. "I think we need to look at spending more on education as a whole, not only at Bayside and other alternative sites, but throughout the district."

School Board members first committed to building a high school for troubled teenagers in 1997. They chose a site off 150th Avenue N west of 58th Street, where the district already owned land. But nearby residents complained about having at-risk students in the neighborhood.

The district then pursued the current site on 49th Street. The board bought the 12-acre site for $2.4-million after a referendum approved by voters in November 2002.

The new building has a host of special features - a reception area nearly 30 feet high with floor-to-ceiling windows, visual and performing arts studios and five technology labs - but Bayside has the standard security equipment found at other high schools. Its 65 surveillance cameras were installed primarily to protect the property and keep students safe, Wirth said.

"It's like a whole new ballgame," said teacher Ken Bambery. "I see this as a commitment from the county that we're going to address these students' needs."

-- Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 19, 2004, 03:59:07]

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