BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's fledgling gifted program is bound for Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics in Spring Hill next year, despite pleas from some parents who do not want to uproot their children and from a School Board member who contends it's not the best option.
The board, after three hours of emotional pleas from parents, teachers and students on both sides, voted 3-1 late Thursday night to move the Quest Academy from Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill to Challenger, a magnet school a few miles to the east.
The board also asked staffers to come back with information on making the academy a separate "school within a school" at Challenger, with its own budget and administrator.
Board member John Sweeney dissented, and Dianne Bonfield was absent due to illness.
Board members agreed with staffers and a gifted advisory council of teachers, parents and other community members that Challenger is the ideal location for Quest, mainly because the school can accommodate the entire program next year with room to grow — and it can be done without a high cost and without shifting attendance boundaries.
"We sit on the board and expect to get information from the staff people that is accurate, and it appears to me the information we were given tonight suggests a certain direction," board member James Yant said.
The other options included a move to Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill or to space in the current ninth-grade center at Central High, west of Brooksville. All came with higher costs, and most couldn't be done in time for next year.
Challenger's more central location is a plus for families on the east side of the county who would like to participate in the gifted program but haven't because of distance, board member Sandra Nicholson said.
"This would at least help ease that situation and make the east side feel more like part of the county," Nicholson said.
The gifted center for elementary and middle school students is putting the squeeze on general education classes at Explorer, a neighborhood zoned school that opened in the fall of 2008. State law requires districts to meet the needs of all gifted students, so if enrollment grows, those packed general education classrooms will get even tighter. That could force the district to move as many as 500 general education students out of Explorer's zone, planning and growth manager Amber Wheeler told the board.
Though Challenger is at capacity this year, the admission at the magnet school can be capped, so Quest's 246 students can move there by adding perhaps a portable or two for elective courses such as music and art, said Cathy Dofka, director of exceptional student education. There are already about 80 students identified as gifted at Challenger in Grades K-7, meaning a large majority of the district's roughly 370 gifted students could be enrolled there next year.
The move would cost as much as $175,000 to modify classrooms at Challenger, but the district would save about $280,000 in busing costs because a countywide transportation system is already in place to get magnet students to and from Challenger, Dofka said.
In a survey of Quest parents by the gifted council, 120 of 169 favored a move to Challenger if the board deemed a relocation of the program necessary. But the roughly two dozen people who spoke during Thursday's meeting were evenly split on the issue.
"It is a win-win situation for everyone," said Brooksville resident Lori Lee, whose 10-year-old son attends Quest. "You'll provide the one thing to the gifted center that we are all looking for, and that is stability."
Kelly Chapman is a third-grade teacher at Explorer with two children in the gifted program.
"We need some relief," Chapman said. "The downsizing of Explorer should not be done on the backs of the students for whom it was built."
Others urged the board to find a way to keep the center where it is.
"This is their family," said Rose Morrill, whose daughter is in fifth grade. "Don't take that away from them."
A few parents complained that the survey, as one put it, "gave four lousy options and Challenger."
Vivian Sweeney, John Sweeney's wife and an assistant principal at Explorer who is pursuing her endorsement in gifted education, was among those who said gifted children don't deal well with change.
"They have a high sense of moral justice, they have increased social awareness and they internalize everything," Vivian Sweeney said. "Do you know what they say to me in the hall? 'Mrs. Sweeney, what did we do wrong? Why are we being moved?' When you're moving a student, you're moving a bobcat, not a Quest kid."
"They have not consulted us," said Jonathon Linstad, a seventh-grader in the gifted program. "Why punish us for getting the weight off your back of overcrowding at Explorer?"
Throughout the meeting, John Sweeney pushed to delay the vote. He said the board hadn't been presented with enough options and shouldn't act without every member present.
"The information we're getting is skewed and incomplete. It's insulting," he said. "I'm tired of being treated like a fool on this. This seems to be a rush job, and when a decision is rushed, mistakes are made, and this is far too important to make mistakes."
He said shrinking Explorer's attendance boundary is part of the answer, not moving Quest. And he worried about the effect on Challenger's math and science magnet program.
"If the gifted program grows and we have 1,000 gifted students, it's no longer a magnet school," he said. "Why would we do that?"
Fagan said he would vote his conviction that students are suffering now because of overcrowding and a move to Challenger is the best remedy.
"Please don't take this wrong, but we need to grow up," Fagan said. "We need to help the kids, and we haven't always done that because of politics."
On Friday, Bonfield said she was under the impression that the meeting was informational and did not expect a vote. She said she would have joined Sweeney.
"It's been set now, and we'll just have to see what happens," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.