BROOKSVILLE — Students who live near Nature Coast Technical High School will likely be granted automatic admission to the magnet school starting next school year.
The Hernando County School Board on Tuesday reached an informal consensus to create a neighborhood zone around the school, south of Brooksville. The radius of the zone has yet to be set, but district staffers said the area would probably be about 2 miles, based on the current residency data.
Opening up a neighborhood zone would help stabilize the numbers at Nature Coast, which has lost about $177,000 from its budget this year after students requested hardship transfers to other schools, principal Toni-Ann Noyes told the board.
The remaining available spots would be filled by the current policy, which requires 70 percent of students to be admitted through portfolio and 30 percent through lottery.
Students who live in the zone set for Nature Coast would be able to apply to attend other schools through the district's controlled choice plan.
It's unclear how many students would be affected by the change. Currently, 263 live within a 2-mile radius, but not all are ninth-graders. District staffers will now gather that data, said curriculum supervisor Marcia Austin.
The 70/30 ratio for portfolio and lottery admissions will also remain in place for next year's admissions process at the district's other two magnet schools, Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics and Chocachatti Elementary, which has performing arts and MicroSociety programs.
The board put off a decision on a controversial proposal to create two neighborhood zones for Challenger and Chocachatti that would grant automatic admission to those schools.
The proposal called for up to 40 percent of the total student population from each school to come from the neighborhood zones. Those students would not have to apply.
The idea, like the one for Nature Coast's zone, came from an advisory committee of parents, principals, teachers and district staffers.
The board has to decide on a philosophical approach that would help guide how other magnet programs develop in the years to come, superintendent Bryan Blavatt told board members. Blavatt supports a system of neighborhood schools that have magnet themes that draw from throughout the county.
Critics of the proposal say the policy for Challenger and Chocachatti would be unfair to families throughout the county that have a true desire for their children to attend the schools and whose chances of getting in would decrease. They also argue that neighborhood zones would compromise the successful formula at each school that relies heavily on parental involvement.
Member Cynthia Moore took issue with that theory.
"All the phone calls I have received have made me feel like I'm back in Mississippi in the 1950s," Moore said, getting choked up. " 'Those renters aren't as good as we are. Those kids are not up to our standards.' That really upset me."
Every board member indicated a willingness to consider many options — including neighborhood zones for Chocachatti and Challenger — especially considering that federal grant money is available for magnet programs that meet certain guidelines. Among them: admitting most students through lottery, not portfolio, and creating programs that would help increase ethnic diversity among a given school's student population.
"I'm not interested in protecting anybody's fiefdom, but at the same time is the procedure as it is the best thing for students of Hernando County?" member Matt Foreman said.
Member John Sweeney said he wanted the committee to present more research on how other districts run magnet programs.
"If programs have been successful, we need to share them at other locations," Sweeney said. "I still have yet to see the duplication of programs at other schools. That would alleviate a lot of the stress surrounding this issue."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.