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Powell takes up where Chocachatti leaves off

The superintendent appoints the middle school to continue Chocachatti's formula of arts courses and a microsociety.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


BROOKSVILLE -- Chocachatti Elementary School has won praise this year from parents and students for its diverse menu of arts courses and a unique program that allows students to hold down jobs, earn salaries and pay taxes in a miniature society.

But since the school was first conceived and its popularity began to grow, Chocachatti parents began asking the same question: Will our kids have to bid farewell to the programs that made Chocachatti so appealing once they leave for middle school?

For months, it looked like the answer might be yes. But now, as Chocachatti's inaugural year winds down and it prepares to promote its first class of fifth-graders, it looks as if Chocachatti's spirit will go with them.

Powell Middle School, just a mile or so down Powell Road from Chocachatti, has been "anointed" by Superintendent John Sanders to pick up where Chocachatti leaves off.

When the new school year begins in August, Powell will offer some of the key elements of Chocachatti's popular formula -- classes in the performing arts and a microsociety program.

Still, two of Chocachatti's most defining characteristics, its school uniforms and its status as a magnet school, will not make the trip.

Powell principal Cy Wingrove said he has no plans to require uniforms. And, while it will accept fifth-graders from Chocachatti, Powell will continue to draw most of its students from its present attendance zone. Chocachatti has no attendance zone. Instead, it accepts students from throughout Hernando County.

All Chocachatti students, regardless of where they live, will have the option of attending Powell. Those who do not wish to may attend the middle school in their attendance zone.

Wingrove said the superintendent, at a meeting of principals held a couple of months ago, "anointed" Powell as the middle school that would create a performing arts and microsociety theme to carry on Chocachatti's flavor.

Wingrove said his faculty has voted in favor of the idea. And, despite being two years from retirement, Wingrove says he is willing to try a different approach to middle school education.

"I don't have any reservations. It's going to be successful. We're going to make it work," he said.

"I hope I don't get to the place where I say I don't want to try something new. I want to go out with the school on top."

At this point, the details of Powell's new look still are taking shape.

No final decisions have been made on what performing arts courses will be offered, how many extra teachers, if any, might be needed or how much money will be available for programs. "Everything is still nebulous," Wingrove said.

That cloudiness has parents asking some questions, Wingrove said. Some wonder if the emphasis on the arts will hurt instruction. He assures them it will not. But most of the questions must, for a while at least, remain unanswered. He hopes a series of meetings with parents this month will clear up some of the confusion.

But for now, it still is unclear how much Powell's enrollment, now at 1,018, will grow with the room that will be set aside for Chocachatti students.

Chocachatti expects to send 117 students into the sixth grade next year. Already, the parents of 70 of those kids have indicated an interest in seeing their children attend Powell.

While the timing is geared to keep continuity for the incoming sixth-graders, Powell's new courses and microsociety will be available to seventh- and eighth-graders as well.

Eduardo Casiano said his daughter, Cristina, a Chocachatti fifth-grader, has enjoyed her school's special programs. And he's glad that Powell, a school Cristina was destined for anyway because of where the family lives, is picking up Chocachatti's popular themes.

But Linda Lanshaw, whose daughter, Lindsey, is also a Chocachatti fifth-grader, has a poor opinion of the school chosen to continue Chocachatti's mission. Though she's been delighted with Chocachatti, Lindsey's experiences in a microsociety will end this year.

"She won't be going to Powell," Lanshaw said.

Some of her young relatives have had poor experiences there, Lanshaw said. And she is concerned about Powell's past "problems with teachers and students," a reference to 1996 sexual abuse allegations raised by students against a Powell teacher. The allegations were never proven, and the teacher, Joseph Gatti, continues to work in the school.

Every school has its fans and its critics, as Chocachatti principal Michael Tellone will attest. But he is thrilled -- and somewhat relieved -- that Powell is taking up an arts theme and is planning to establish a microsociety.

Chocachatti's formula, which drew 1,700 student applications for just 700 seats, includes class offerings in ballet, drama, violin, percussion, martial arts and an assortment of others.

Its microsociety tries to show students how what they learn in the classroom applies to the real world. A student legislature makes laws that are enforced by a force of CrimeStoppers. A postal service, fueled by stamp sales, delivers messages from classroom to classroom. A production company, which ties into the arts angle, puts on performances and charges admission. Everyone has a salary, and every student must pay taxes.

"I could see where it really has the potential to excite middle-school kids," said Tellone, who worked as a counselor and a band and chorus director at a middle school before becoming an elementary principal.

Powell's proximity to Chocachatti might make it possible for the two schools to share instructors in some of their unique courses, such as violin or the martial arts. And, as both principals noted, Powell has a reputation for having strong music and choral groups.

Tellone said he is relieved that Powell is picking up the cause because parents were asking for a middle-school equivalent of Chocachatti even before his school opened in August. It was one of the few questions asked at every school he visited last year when he was making a sales pitch to parents of prospective students.

Chocachatti's is a curriculum that has students eager to get to school and parents won over by their children's eagerness to learn. But, with the school just in its ninth month of operation, there is no tangible proof yet that Chocachatti has found a magic formula for success.

Its first round of achievement test scores will not come out for several weeks. And district officials are already downplaying some of the astronomical expectations for the school's performance.

Yet superintendent Sanders wants Powell to emulate Chocachatti and other schools to consider their own theme-based approaches to learning. He considers the Chocachatti experiment a success because children there are visibly excited about learning.

Luke Schmitt, a parent and president of Powell's Parent-Teacher-Student Association, said he thinks a majority of his school's parents like the new direction. But he admits that most probably do not realize the scope of the changes ahead.

"I think it's something that's going to take a lot of work. It's a concept I don't completely understand," Schmitt said. "It's a complete turnaround from what we have."

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