DADE CITY — Pasco County school district officials are talking about moving the programs out of Moore Mickens Education Center and closing down the campus, creating a stir in the Dade City community, where the school and its name hold a lot of history.
Moore Mickens began as the county's first permanent school for black students, opened in the late 1930s as Moore Academy. The campus grew in 1952 to include a new Moore Elementary School, and again in 1956 with the debut of Mickens High. The school became Moore Mickens Middle in 1981, and converted to its current status as an education center in 1987.
Today the campus at 38301 Martin Luther King Blvd. provides a range of programs including adult education and GED classes, technical and vocational programs, Exceptional Student Education for special needs students, and the Cyesis program for students who are pregnant or have children.
Assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said the proposal to relocate the courses from Moore Mickens to other campuses resulted from three key concerns.
First and foremost, he said, the district wanted to ensure greater academic opportunities to the 120 high school students at Moore Mickens. Many already travel to Pasco High for honors and other upper level courses, he said.
Equally important, Gadd said, were concerns that CSX intends to increase the number of trains running on the track just outside the campus to as many as 30 a day. The school also is a "maintenance nightmare," he said.
"Just keeping that school up and going, you're pouring money into a really old building," Gadd said. "So we made a decision to look at moving it."
To people like City Commissioner Eunice Penix, a retired teacher and lifelong area resident, the idea smacks of disdain for the black community.
"I think it's terrible for them to want to close a landmark for blacks," Penix said. "I don't like that. I think we will get a petition together."
She planned to rally residents in support of keeping Moore Mickens open. She was not the only one with questions and concerns.
The Rev. Nathaniel Sims of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church said he began meeting with leaders soon after hearing rumblings about plans to shutter the school, with a goal of learning more details and keeping the community in the decision-making process.
Some Moore Mickens staff members also appealed to superintendent Kurt Browning, urging him to tread lightly on shutting down their school.
Media specialist Leslie Ruttle listed for Browning all the "amazing" offerings that the school provides, from early education to adult classes, noting further that the school serves as a community touchstone.
"We have a rich cultural history with deep ties to the community," Ruttle wrote in an email to the superintendent. "Our school is the original grammar and high school for blacks when schools were segregated. We have a 'reunion' committee that meets monthly and plans a yearly reunion of Mickens High School each summer. Over 200 members still attend. The members take great pride in Moore Mickens Education Center and will be heartbroken to see their school dismantled."
Reading teacher Lisa Ciganek wrote to Browning that the rumors of the school's fate had already begun taking a negative toll on the students who rely on Moore Mickens.
"We serve the students that other schools do not want — or for whom needs are not met — or who have been allowed to fall through the cracks," Ciganek wrote. "We allow teen parents to continue the educations that both they and their children need for them to have. We graduate students who were told they would never amount to anything — to 'just get your GED' — to give up. We show them a way to keep going. We are their 'chance for a change.' No other school in this area does it like we do."
Gadd stressed that no decisions had been made on the fate of the programs or the buildings. The district had looked at moving the courses to property adjacent to Irvin Education Center, about four miles away, but that deal fell through.
Now the staff is exploring whether it can have the classes take place in portables at Pasco High and Pasco Elementary. It also is reviewing other property options.
Throughout any conversations, the school's history and special place in the community will always be considered, said School Board member Allen Altman, who represents the area and attended the school after desegregation, with O.K. Mickens as principal. But he reiterated that safety concerns arising from increased rail traffic combined with the goal to better meet student academic needs also must be addressed.
"The intention is to expand the educational opportunities and the programs available to students here on the east side of the county," Altman said. "I think that is a good thing. How that occurs is still being discussed."
Conversations are expected to continue throughout Dade City over the future of Moore Mickens, as Browning and his team prepare to make a recommendation to the School Board, perhaps before the end of March so that the changes can be implemented before the 2013-14 school year begins.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.