SAN ANTONIO — Every day after school, Molly Bentley grabs a chair in the San Antonio Elementary cafeteria and begins to do her homework.
By the time her mom picks her up 80 minutes later, the fourth-grader has:
• finished her homework and had it checked by one of two teachers
• spent time reading (which her classroom teacher requires)
• helped some younger children with their homework or reading
• had some "down" time, and
• played an organized game or played in the school's activity stations.
Tami Bentley couldn't be happier with the Coaches' Camp that physical education teachers J.J. Scaglione and Bobby Wade started earlier this year at the school.
"They are not just babysitting. They are actually running a program," Bentley said. "It works for us, and I am willing to pay (the $50 weekly cost) for it."
What she and other parents can't understand is why superintendent Heather Fiorentino has recommended kicking the camp out of the school so the district's Place program can move in.
"The (coaches') program works," said Tanya VanAtter, a mother of two who has started a petition to oppose its ouster. "Why not give parents at other schools the opportunity to bus in for Coaches' Camp? I guarantee you the cafeteria would be full."
During a recent School Board meeting, Fiorentino told the board that the district has been carrying the indirect costs of the Coaches' Camp, such as electricity, for free and it cannot afford to do so any longer. Besides, she added, the district has its own before- and after-school program, which costs less ($37 a week) and might appeal to more people.
The Place program does not always have homework help available, and it is not run by teachers. Still, it is the district's "official" program.
"We do have the Place program," Fiorentino said, "so it is a direct conflict."
To respond to parents' complaints, Fiorentino put assistant superintendent David Scanga in charge (a move that rankles the parents, who want to hear from the boss herself). Scanga said he understands the parents' desire to keep their children in a program run by certified teachers, but from a district perspective, such a program isn't sustainable.
"From year to year, those programs might be easy to get teachers or not," he said. "Place is tried and true."
The district has sent out a survey to see how many San Antonio parents would sign up for Place next fall. In the past, interest has been so limited that the few who want it have bused their children to the program at Pasco Elementary in Dade City.
VanAtter figures the results will be the same this year. She'd like to see the Coaches' Camp, which she calls a "godsend" for her children, remain and expand.
Scaglione and Wade certainly are willing.
"For a few years now we've been trying to do something like this, focusing on fitness and academics," said Scaglione, San Antonio's P.E. teacher of 13 years, who sold his landscaping business to begin the camp. "People are talking about kids being obese and not having enough time to do homework. … We came up with something that (dealt with an issue) we saw every day."
The men didn't plan to open the program at the elementary school. Three churches courted them, in fact, and one still has said it will welcome the camp if it has to move.
But district officials suggested they run the program at the school, Scaglione said, because Place wasn't there. It made sense, he acknowledged, since the kids were already there.
So they overcame their hesitancy and agreed to have the camp at school.
Ever since Place officials got word, though, "it's been nothing but a battle," Scaglione said.
Scanga said Place always was part of the equation for San Antonio, well before the Coaches' Camp started and the current school principal took over.
It's not an option that the parents who chose the Coaches' Camp want, though.
"In my opinion you're fixing something that isn't broken," Tanya's husband Sean VanAtter told the School Board, calling Place a "free-for-all."
Board members got the message. Rather than tear down a successful program, they said, why not find ways to improve the district's other child care programs such as Place to mimic the Coaches' Camp success?
"The parents are not looking for day care," observed board vice chairman Allen Altman, who lives in east Pasco and has been the parents' main point of contact. "Maybe it's a model that we work toward doing our Place programs around. … I don't want us to just slam the door on it."
Board member Kathryn Starkey agreed.
"The board is going to have to delve a little more deeply into this issue and find out what is best for kids," she said.
Bentley said she doesn't plan to stop fighting the move until she at least gets some acceptable answers. She can't come up with any good reason to shove the Coaches' Camp out the door.
"I think they're just appeasing us, being polite to hush us," she said. "I'm not done yet."
For his part, Scaglione said he and Wade would move their camp if need be.
"It's just sad," he said. "The parents really like it. The kids really like it. We're doing something good … and they're punishing us for doing something creative."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.