BROOKSVILLE — One by one, they came to the lectern to share their stories.
The woman who got pregnant in the 10th grade and dropped out of high school came with the diploma she earned more than five decades later.
The man from the Dominican Republic who has a doctorate in his native country said he was able to gain U.S. citizenship because he learned English.
Another man who has served as a math tutor for the district's HEART Literacy adult education program said he has seen many success stories, like the single mother of three who improved her math skills and got a better job.
All of the speakers came to the Hernando School Board meeting Tuesday night to praise the HEART program and defend the district's decision to hold daytime adult education courses at J.D. Floyd K-8 School in Spring Hill. (HEART stands for Hernando's Education for Adult Readers in Training).
Parents who might be worried about adult education enrollees sharing a campus with their elementary and middle school children have nothing to fear, HEART students and teachers told the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. And board members didn't disagree.
"As much as I understand that we must protect our children, I feel like I have done something wrong with all the comments from J.D. Floyd parents," Claudia Pereira Fernandez, who is taking English classes at the school, told the board as her voice broke. "All I want to do is learn the language of this country so I may someday be able to work in my profession as a teacher."
Sharon Taloff was the last of 10 people to speak. Taloff left high school in her senior year and 29 years later walked across a stage to accept a diploma. She now works for an ambulance company and is pursuing a degree in emergency medical services.
"If this arises again and there is any doubt, I hope that I may be remembered," Taloff said. "A mother, a grandmother, someone who volunteers in the community."
After the comments, board Chairman Pat Fagan said that superintendent Bryan Blavatt had already communicated concerns raised by parents.
"I'm sorry that you had to come up here and defend the HEART literacy program," Fagan said. "We consider you as students. We know … what HEART Literacy has done for this county, and we will always support you."
Vice Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson offered a similar sentiment. Neither of the other two board members present, Dianne Bonfield and John Sweeney, voiced any hesitation about the location. Board member James Yant was absent.
Last week, Floyd parent Mary Cooper raised concerns about the adult ed program operating on an elementary/middle school campus during the day — a first for the district. Officials added Floyd as a fourth location, with courses held during the day, to complement existing sites in Brooksville.
Adult classes at Floyd are from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday. Enrollment stood at 91 students as of Wednesday, said literacy coordinator Denise Moen.
Blavatt assured parents last week that HEART students are screened each day for criminal histories and escorted by staff members to and from portable classrooms at the back of the campus.
Sandra James, a HEART teacher since 1997, reiterated that to the board Tuesday night.
"These measures, I hope, will reassure you we are concerned about the safety of J.D. Floyd students," James said. "(HEART students) undergo more scrutiny than J.D. Floyd parents."
Tricia Flancher watched the often emotional speeches from the audience. The parent of three Floyd students arrived late to the board meeting and missed the chance to fill out a form to request her three minutes of speaking time.
On Wednesday, Flancher admitted it would have been tough to speak her mind after the HEART students' heart-wrenching pleas. But she did not waver in her opposition to the location.
"I don't know of any parent at J.D. Floyd who is against adult education," Flancher said. "It's a great program. However, placing adults with elementary kids on the same campus is opening ourselves up to a host of problems."
Screening and escorting adult students isn't foolproof, Flancher said. She said she still hasn't gotten an answer from Blavatt to her main question: Why not somewhere else?
"It's unfortunate that he chose the adult needs over the safety concerns of the parents," Flancher said.
Flancher made 20 copies of the article about the issue that appeared last week in the Times and handed them out to parents with a note to contact the School Board if they had concerns.
"Let the school board members and the superintendent know this is unsafe and unacceptable," Flancher wrote.
She said several parents she talked to expressed concerns. But on Wednesday, Blavatt said he had received calls from only three Floyd parents.
He said he would send his grandson to the school without hesitation.
"This is one of the most controlled situations you're going to have," he said.
One adult student came up with a criminal history and could not take classes at Floyd, Moen said. The student was referred to HEART's non-school locations and to online classes that will start in October, she said. Moen would not offer specifics on the student's criminal history, but said the person was not a registered sexual offender or predator.
"Just know we are erring on the side of caution," she said.
With support from the board and minimal outcry from parents, it's unlikely there will be any change this year. Flancher said she is hopeful that, at the very least, district officials will keep in mind parents' concerns as preparations are made for the HEART program next year.
"The main consideration has to be space and availability," Blavatt said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.