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Hernando County officials endorse online school for dropouts

BROOKSVILLE — Time was, a student dropped out of high school and officials considered it a failure.

That hasn't changed. But suddenly in Hernando County it's something else, too — an opportunity. And companies are fighting over it.

On Tuesday, the School Board enthusiastically endorsed a proposal by Penn Foster Career School to teach up to 30 recent dropouts in a pilot online program beginning in January. Officials plan to find students who have recently left school, perhaps only a credit or two shy of graduation, and lure them back to get their degree.

If that sounds familiar, it should.

Little over a month ago, the board unanimously rejected an application by Mavericks in Education of Fort Lauderdale to open a 350-student charter school for dropouts by next fall. Members found much to like, including its computer-based program and flexible schedules. But several worried about handing over more than 90 percent of each student's state funding, about $3,800 per student, to a for-profit company.

Money figured prominently in discussions with Penn Foster, too.

"We're very, very cost effective," said CEO Stuart Udall, describing his company's pricing. Students can take a single course for $585 or $1,500 for an unlimited amount over 12 months.

Superintendent Wayne Alexander said that deal — and the opportunity for the district to earn state funding for each student it woos into the program — is compelling.

"This actually makes you money," he told the board.

Founded in 1890 to train coal miners, Penn Foster has grown from a correspondence school into one of the nation's largest accredited online schools. It counts 12,000 students in Florida, including many in Pinellas County schools, and is developing contracts with other districts including Palm Beach, Brevard, Miami-Dade and "hopefully Hillsborough," Udall said.

About 70 percent of its students are dropouts, and the company works to forge relationships with those students, he added.

"They can start when they want, slow down," Udall said. "We can fit their schedule."

Mavericks officials had offered much the same thing, and have already filed an appeal of Hernando's denial with the state Department of Education.

But Alexander, who had supported the Mavericks bid, made no secret of his enthusiasm for the Penn Foster venture.

"I truly believe this is going to take off and absolutely explode, because it's what our kids need," he said.

Board members said they liked the idea of using a building on the Hernando High School campus to start the Penn Foster pilot program. They will take a final vote on a contract with the company at their Jan. 20 regular meeting.

Blood policy reversed

In other business Tuesday, the board agreed to modify its policy to allow 16-year-old students to give blood during campus blood drives after officials from LifeSouth Community Blood Centers said a previous change in the policy had endangered supplies.

"We are currently experiencing a 50 percent increase in hospital demand over last year," said branch director Ed Keith. "But our donor base is decreasing."

Last summer, the board banned donations by 16-year-olds following an incident in which a student experienced serious side-effects after donating at Hernando High.

But on Tuesday the board agreed to reverse that decision after LifeSouth said it would double-check parent permission slips with a phone call; use scales to verify student weight; and provide drinks and snacks for all donors.

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

Hernando County officials endorse online school for dropouts 12/10/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:00pm]
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