Change defines Hernando school district



BROOKSVILLE — Take a school district of 23,000 students, plus 3,176 teachers and staff. Stir vigorously.

That's the scene facing the Hernando County schools this fall, where unprecedented numbers of children and adults will be starting the year in new buildings.

Some students are being moved because of school boundary changes or new policies for special-needs education. Others are moving of their own accord to the district's first gifted-education center or are taking advantage of their option to leave schools the federal government deems to be substandard.

Add the numbers of adults on the move — a third of all principals have been reassigned and half of all schools have at least one new administrator — and you get some idea of the churn under way this fall.

In the history of the district, there has never been such movement, said student services director James Knight.

"It's probably over 30 percent (of students,)" he said. "And quite a few schools are seeing total administrative changes. Just for me, I'm trying to keep straight who's where."

Some of those changes have been unavoidable. School rezoning was required under law to accommodate the new 1,800-student Explorer K-8 off Northcliffe Boulevard.

Other changes were prompted by last year's arrival of Superintendent Wayne Alexander, who quickly launched an administrative reorganization and called for special-needs students to be moved from "cluster schools" to buildings closer to home.

Either way, the phrase "back to school" will ring a bit hollow this month as many in the district find themselves starting over in a new place.

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There has been no lack of publicity surrounding this fall's school boundary changes, which will affect at least 4,000 children. The district held meetings, posted maps on its Web site, and sent out a winter mailing.

There was one glitch in the mailing, Knight said.

"We found out that people who moved after Jan. 11 never got any notice," he said. "There may be a few children whose families moved after Jan. 11 and their families didn't realize they were being rezoned."

On the other end of the spectrum, the number of well-informed families taking advantage of a federal right to switch schools has more than doubled.

Under federal law, children who attend a low-income school that fails to make adequate progress for two consecutive years can switch to a higher performing school. This summer, 520 families sought a switch, up from "less than 200" last year, said school choice specialist Beth Varn.

Some of those applications were likely motivated by the district boundary changes. Several families said last spring that they'd fight a move to rezone their children into Spring Hill Elementary and would exercise their federal right to switch to Explorer, Suncoast or J.D. Floyd elementary schools.

But now that Spring Hill has vaulted to an "A" from a "C" under the state grading system, some might reconsider, Varn said.

Other families raised concerns in May over the district's plans to shift special-needs students.

"When are we getting information on where he's going to be placed?" asked parent Misty Sanchez at a forum, referring to plans to reassign her son. "He's been at Moton Elementary for eight years. So much change at one time is not good for him."

About 300 special-needs children are being shifted to Explorer K-8 from other Spring Hill schools, said special education director Cathy Dofka.

Many of those children live near the school and would normally be assigned to it, she said. But Explorer will also serve students with moderate mental or emotional disabilities, serious medical needs or hearing impairments — roles previously assumed by "cluster schools" like Deltona Elementary and West Hernando Middle School.

More than 230 other students will be moving to Explorer this fall to join the new Quest Academy for Gifted Education.

Districtwide, special-needs student with moderate to mild disabilities will be moved to their neighborhood schools under a five-year plan unveiled last spring, Dofka said. Each move requires a separate meeting to ensure student needs can be met at the new location.

"It's been a busy summer," she said.

As if that's not enough, eight principals are starting the year in new schools, along with more than a dozen assistant principals.

Change is expected for school administrators, but it takes time for three or four adults to develop an effective working relationship — and time is short before the arrival of students on Aug. 18.

"It's like a marriage, that's the only way I can describe it," said Toni-Ann Noyes, the new principal at West Hernando Middle School, describing the daily meetings and constant phone contact.

She counts herself lucky to have two assistant principals — Lorna Lowe and Carmine Rufa — with whom she's worked before. There's an instant chemistry, she said.

When it works, administrators anticipate each other's needs and juggle problems. When it doesn't work, problems grow.

Either way, she said, students should never see the growing pains of that workplace marriage.

"When parents don't get along, they don't fight in front of the children," Noyes said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Change defines Hernando school district 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:44pm]

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