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Second Chance School last chance for many

County’s newest facility takes in students expelled from other schools. They have two choices if they mess up: jail or drop out.

[Times photos: Maurice Rivenbark]
Student Tony Batta, 13, right, heads for the basketball court as teachers, from left, Donna Savoie, Dwayne Mobley and Marion Jones talk with other students Friday at the new Second Chance School.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- One boy showed up Friday in an orange T-shirt with "Dept. of Corrections" and an inmate number stamped across the back -- a souvenir of his recent stay in juvenile hall.

photo
Chris Rivera, 14, right, a student at the school, joins others using computers during class on Friday.
Previously, another boy arrived on his first day with a beeper in one pocket and a cell phone in the other. Suspected of being a drug dealer, he was told to lose the accessories.

They are just two students in the first group at Hernando County's newest educational facility, the Second Chance School.

In a community building in Kennedy Park, they are seven kids who no longer can set foot on the grounds of other county schools. They all have been expelled.

Some have been in alternative school programs for years. Some have been to jail.

Their misdeeds range from habitual truancy, smoking and swearing to passing drugs around school, committing burglary and acts of violence against teachers or schoolmates.

The name is Second Chance, but it might as well be called the Last Chance School. Mess up here and there's nothing left except dropping out, imprisonment or both.

Muscular staff sends a message

Each boy meets two men of imposing physical stature upon his arrival.

Marion Jones, a violence prevention worker and the school's coordinator, is a former basketball star at Hernando High who played college ball at Saint Leo University. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs about 235 pounds.

Dwayne Mobley, a teacher at the school, is a former football star from Hernando High who played fullback at the University of Florida. At 29, he is built like a fullback, or a rock.

Muscle is important, as most of these kids enjoyed throwing their weight around at their old schools. And next to Jones and Mobley, they seem very small. But the program is about more than beef.

"These kids are the worst of the worst, and we've had them for three weeks and not had a problem yet," Jones said. "We just give them love and give them guidelines. And they follow the guidelines."

The Second Chance School, which opened Jan. 18, is a joint project between the school system, which provides staff and supplies, and county government, which provides space in the park's Lorenzo Hamilton Community Building.

Already, the school district has an extensive network of programs for troubled kids.

The Star Center in Brooksville is the last stop before kids get expelled. Their expulsion papers were drawn up, but the School Board granted them an educational equivalent of a stay. Clearly, it represents a second chance of its own.

In all, 59 kids were assigned to the Star Center last year. Its enrollment, with last year's carry-overs, hovers around 65.

The Second Chance School targets kids who blow it at the Star Center or who commit such heinous deeds they are considered too bad for Star. Last year, the School Board followed through on 35 expulsions -- kids who could potentially qualify as the worst of the worst.

An offer of a more structured environment

One of Second Chance's key selling points is that it provides troubled kids with a structured environment during weekdays, when they might otherwise be roaming the streets or looking for trouble at home.

But for Second Chance to get off the ground, the school district had to kill another program that did the same thing for students who are not as far down the road to destruction.

That program -- Students Staying in School -- served kids who have been suspended from school for three to 10 days. It was snuffed out after Christmas when the School Board started cutting back on expenses to repair its budget.

District officials shifted SSS's staff budget to Second Chance because they already had taken $100,000 from the state to modify the Kennedy Park building and to buy computers for the school.

Janice Ferguson-Smith, the school district's safe and drug-free schools coordinator, said it's important to keep suspended students off the streets before they learn habits that eventually will get them expelled. She hopes another state grant will revive the Students Staying in School program by March.

"If that program doesn't hurry up and start back, we are going to be flooded here" at the Second Chance School, she said.

The money changing is evidence of one unavoidable fact -- programs like the Second Chance School and Students Staying in School are very expensive.

Aside from the $100,000 state grant, the district will chip in about $60,000 for its small staff, all to serve just 10 kids at a time, perhaps up to 25 during the course of a year.

That much money, in a regular school, would pay for four classroom teachers for a year.

But it is precisely that low student-to-teacher ratio that makes the Second Chance School a relatively peaceful haven for kids with a history of causing chaos.

Opportunities are lauded, but where are the girls?

Ernie Grimaldi, a ninth-grader expelled from Springstead High, wishes there were some girls at the Second Chance School. But he says the place has other advantages: It isn't crowded, and he gets a lot of attention from the staff.

"It's cool," he said. "You can do more stuff and there are less people. The teachers can help you."

Charles Risch, a ninth-grader from Hernando High, was perpetually skipping school and admits that he has a bad temper that gets him into trouble.

But he hasn't missed a day since coming to the Second Chance School. Largely, that's because he wants to prove himself worthy of returning to his friends at Hernando High.

"I really didn't like it while I was (at Hernando High)," Risch said. "This is a nice program. But it's boring."

Compared with other schools, kids at Second Chance are much less tied to desk work. Students begin the day by eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, which prompts discussion or maybe an essay on the hottest topics.

Most of the academic work is done on a row of personal computers equipped with programs that can focus on the students' weaknesses in core subjects such as reading and math.

But work is frequently broken up by activities such as ping-pong, basketball, baseball and walks through the park. Jones says that type of schedule is a must for students who don't function well chained to a desk.

"These type of kids, you have to give them a reward," Jones said. "You've got to find something to occupy their time and something they like."

The school is still spreading its wings.

One of its key aspects, vocational training, hasn't gotten off the ground yet, though it likely will in the fall. Another element in the original proposal, Christian counseling, was shelved after concerns about crossing the line between government and religion.

As the spring wears on, Mobley hopes to enlist the students in preparing the baseball diamonds for games in an informal community service effort.

He wants that -- and the program as a whole -- to give the kids a sense of purpose.

"That way it's not always me, me, me," Mobley said. "It's something for somebody else."

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