BROOKSVILLE — Before school many days this year, Brooksville Engineering, Science & Technology Academy principal H. Andre Buford stood at the entrance gate to greet his flock of middle school students.
He was welcoming them, sure. But he was also setting the tone for the fledgling charter school.
"They know me as more than their principal, but as someone they can talk to," he said. "Someone who is going to talk to them and ask how things are going."
By most accounts, things went smoothly for the inaugural year of Brooksville's first charter school, though questions still linger about whether the charter is reaching the neighborhood community it set out to serve.
Aside from some hiccups at the beginning of the year, mainly equipment that didn't arrive on time, Buford says there haven't been any major issues at the school.
"Our challenges have been minimal or nonexistent," he said. "We flew right in under the radar of all the tragedies that can be part of starting up a school. We didn't have those."
The BEST Academy opened in August for just six- and seventh-grade students with plans of adding an eighth-grade class for the following year. Administrators say enrollment in the first year, at 74 students, was strong, though short of the school's capacity of 88 students.
Next year's enrollment is even stronger.
For the 2014-15 year, the school has reached its full capacity of 132 students and now has a waiting list of about 14. He said the school used a lottery to determine which new students were accepted. Families who already have a student at the school are given preference.
Buford said he believes the school built up a good reputation in its first year, offering students a small school environment, numerous hands-on activities and a strong emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM.
"[Students] like the idea of being on a small campus," he said. "They embrace the idea that their teachers know them. They're excited about the fact that they can go to any of us on this campus and that we will take the time to talk to them and listen. I think that's the type of people we have here."
Mark Laird is a parent of a BEST sixth-grader. He was impressed with the school's first year.
Laird, a Brooksville resident, said his son is performing well academically and enjoys the off-campus activities, which include everything from hiking to snorkeling and kayaking.
"It's a very hands-on school and I like that," Laird said. "He seems to do much better with that."
He gave a lot of credit for the school's strong start to Buford.
"I think the school is doing as good as it is because of him," he said.
Located on School Street in south Brooksville, BEST is the only charter school on the east side of Hernando County.
When it was created, the school's target was to attract students living within the Parrott Middle School zone — specifically those living in predominantly African-American south Brooksville. A survey of neighborhood residents showed a high level of enthusiasm for the school.
But there still appears to be some disconnect with the community.
Buford said the enrollment is scattered, with students coming anywhere from Ridge Manor to Spring Hill.
At a meeting this spring for parents interested in enrolling their students at BEST for the upcoming year, Buford said there were only about four African-American families out of 94 people who showed up.
"The idea for this to be a neighborhood charter school is lofty and it's great. I applaud that. That's the reason why it was started," Buford said. "But everyone has to understand it is still a public charter school, which means everyone can apply. You wish that more of the people from the neighborhood would apply. You wish that more of the people from the neighborhood would have that interest."
Paul Douglas, president of the Hernando County branch of the NAACP and a member of the BEST Academy's governing board, shared that opinion.
Though he said he was extremely proud of the school's accomplishments, Douglas said the school has faced a "challenge" when it comes to recruiting neighborhood students.
"We put that school in south Brooksville for a reason," he said. "What we were doing is offering an alternative."
Like Buford, he too noticed the lack of black families in attendance at meetings for interested parents.
"It says we're not getting our story out," he said. "We're not being very effective in getting to the places where we tell the story."
In an informal poll of residents, Douglas said he discovered that many parents in the community didn't understand that they could apply. He said some thought it was a private school and they couldn't get in.
School officials said they want to continue to focus on recruiting in the south Brooksville area. In the past, Buford has gone to churches and canvassed the neighborhood. They are formulating additional strategies to reach the community.
Overall, black students represented roughly 22 percent of the school — above the district average of about six percent, according to district records.
Roughly 57 percent of the school was on free and reduced lunch and about 5 percent suffered a disability.
Buford said this first year has flown by and that he is looking forward to next year, which will be the first with all middle school grade levels.
"It's kind of hard to believe I'm back now planning another new student orientation," he said. "It's almost as if we just had one."