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Alternative education shift brings concerns, questions

Teachers and parents want to know more about Hillsborough's plan to integrate disruptive and regular students.

By MELANIE AVE
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 15, 2001


TAMPA -- A week after the Hillsborough County School Board agreed to dismantle its alternative education program because of budget cuts, many teachers and parents remain in the dark about the district's plans.

The current plan calls for closing the four alternative education centers, where the toughest, most disruptive students attend, and dispersing them to portable classrooms at 30 middle schools and high schools.

The district said it has not yet identified which schools will get the alternative students.

Teachers said Wednesday they have heard nothing official, and only read about the plan in the newspaper. They would like the district to tell them more.

"Let us know what's happening so we can get the worst news," said teacher Barbara Wishart. "Don't sugarcoat it."

On Wednesday, district officials refused to release what they called a draft of the restructuring plan to the St. Petersburg Times, saying it was a preliminary document. They have set a meeting for 4 p.m. today for all alternative center employees at the Bryan Alternative Center on E Hillsborough Avenue.

Officials said the changes are necessary because the program costs $7.5-million but only receives $2.9-million in state funding.

"These are difficult decisions for all of us," said Mary Ellen Elia, the director of nontraditional programs.

The district is trimming $67-million in programs and positions from its budget through next year because of a state revenue shortfall.

But teachers and employees of the Bryan, Simmons, James and McFarlane Park alternative centers said they're troubled by the secretive nature of the budget cutting measures.

They question whether students who've been kicked out of school should be mixed in with other students. Where is the punishment in expelling students but keeping them in their regular schools? asked alternative teacher Anthony Corbett.

"Do you want your kid in a school with someone who smacked a teacher?" he asked. "Well, he's going to be on the same campus now."

Alternative education secretary Donna Rudd said alternative students will be labeled by their peers and regular students will be mingling with the most troubled children.

"They don't need to have their peers looking at them, taunting them," she said. "These kids can't handle that. They're short-fused as it is."

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