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Board balances crowding, funds

The Citrus County School Board seeks a way ease crowded high schools in a cost effective manner - while also trying to better service problem students.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


INVERNESS -- The problem is as straightforward as they come.

In the next several years, the school district expects more high school students than it can fit into the high schools.

The solution is likely to be nowhere near as simple.

Sure, some have suggested the obvious answer: Build a new high school. But with the price upwards of $30-million, school officials are looking for other options.

Tough decisions are on the horizon for the School Board. Tougher still is the reality that every decision made will affect a whole series of other decisions.

By the time they're done, board members could change the way the district structures its high school programs and facilities, could reshape the future of high school academies and create a complete continuum of programs for students who otherwise would have been kicked out of school for causing disruptions.

There is no shortage of ideas on how to accomplish the complex series of actions ahead.

Some suggest Citrus high schools in the future will include isolated ninth-grade centers that will be on the same campus as, but separate from, facilities for 10th- through 12th-grade students.

Former superintendent Pete Kelly, in a letter to Superintendent David Hickey this month, suggested the district cannot afford a new high school. Instead, he said, Citrus should build three elementary schools, close three schools and shift some programs to help ease high school overcrowding.

School staffers also are discussing possible changes at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute, strengthening of academy-like programs and expanding the Renaissance Center in a permanent site that could house not just the disinterested and disruptive, but those who would otherwise be out of school because of suspension and expulsion.

"It's all on the table," Hickey said last week. "There is no done deal . . . .

"We are looking at ways and means to reach and teach students. We have a dollars-and-cents concern and we're particularly looking at schedules and new programs."

For the School Board, settling on basic needs and philosophies is the first step.

Board members know they must find a way to house high school students. They also want new program options to better prepare students for the work force. Several say they don't want to see students who might make foolish but serious mistakes from missing out on educational opportunities.

Each year at this time, schools and county-level officials put the finishing touches on the next year's budget.

On May 8, the board will hear a detailed presentation from the consultant hired to consider the need for a new high school. In a related matter, the board will soon receive a long-term construction priority list that may or may not include a new high school.

Also on May 8, board members will hear a presentation on school programs geared toward career preparation. That includes the high school academies.

Board member Pat Deutschman and other board members have said they want students to attend the academy that appeals to them. Yet, according to district procedures, schools already at capacity cannot accept students zoned for another school.

All three high schools have reached capacity.

So a student who lives in Inverness could not attend the health academy at Crystal River High School and a Lecanto student couldn't attend the Citrus High business academy.

School officials have discussed using academies, if they could be in separate structures, as a way to remove some space pressure by drawing students off the primary campuses.

School Board Chairwoman Patience Nave noted that the board will hear details on a possible program that would send students to the Withlacoochee Technical for a part of their high school time, thus relieving some space crunch.

Last week, the board discussed alternative programs where troubled and disruptive students might go instead of facing out-of-school suspensions or expulsions. Adding such programs might siphon additional students now attending the packed high schools.

"WTI is going to play a role and the Renaissance Center is going to play a role" in solving the space crunch, Hickey said.

In the cases of separate academies or new alternative programs, new facilities would be needed.

Former official urges exploration of options

In Kelly's April 3 letter to Hickey, Kelly encourages the development of academies and various career pathways. He notes those kinds of programs will help meet a state directive to make all schools smaller by creating schools within schools.

But on the topic of a new high school, Kelly was adamant.

"The potential cost of new personnel required for the start up of a new high school could range in the area of $600,000 to $700,000. These funds could be better expended on developing programs and hiring of additional instructional staff to provide increased services for our students in their present locations," Kelly wrote.

But he was even more concerned with the $30-million to $35-million cost of a new high school building.

Instead, he suggested the district build new elementary schools to replace Lecanto Primary and Inverness Primary schools. Since Lecanto Primary is adjacent to Lecanto High and Inverness Primary adjacent to Citrus High, he suggested the old school structures be used to expand academy space and create schools within schools.

Part of Inverness Primary could be used as the new permanent Renaissance Center, Kelly wrote.

The replacement elementary schools could then be built in more appropriate areas.

Kelly suggested Homosassa Elementary be replaced with a larger elementary school on a different, more convenient site. A consultant is examining Homosassa Elementary to determine what should be done with the old facility to help it better serve students.

Kelly concluded that building the three new elementary schools would cost roughly the same as constructing a single new high school.

"Not only would we save additional personnel costs associated with duplication of units required for servicing a new school, we would save on additional support costs (such as) transportation and food service," he wrote.

Hickey said the ideas are part of the ongoing facilities discussion. Nave agreed that innovative thinking is necessary.

"We'd like to just build a new high school," she said, noting that the cost was a big issue. "Our professionals are looking at alternatives."

Some other alternatives are focused less on making room for students and more on making certain programs are cost effective and good academic choices.

For example, officials are talking about the value of what is known as the four-by-four or block schedule. All three high schools use the schedule; Hickey has said he wants it reviewed this year to see whether the district should continue using it.

Beyond that, Hickey also said the district is looking at another different idea, one that would house all the ninth graders in a high school in one section of the school separate from the 10th, 11th and 12th graders and possibly on a different schedule than the rest of the student body.

"I think it's an extremely attractive idea," Nave said. "I think it would be a wonderful opportunity and provide a little buffer for those middle school students moving to the high school . . . they can kind of ease in."

Nave said such a gradual transition into the high school would help build a feeling of belonging and provide a better sense of security to students who would be moving into the very large and, for some, rather frightening world of a high school.

"We all have to have a sense of place," she said. "They can get lost in the transition and this is a wonderful way to have that sense of place."

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