BROOKSVILLE — As raindrops fell onto the brim of his ball cap, Andrew Caamano stood in the grass along Elgin Boulevard, sandwiched between signs that posed a question to motorists as they turned into Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics.
"MAGNET POLICY CHANGE? 40% ZONED?!??"
It's a question the Hernando County School Board will consider at a workshop Tuesday afternoon, and Caamano wants to make sure that parents' voices are heard.
"There are a lot of good reasons to be in Hernando County, and this is one of them — our magnet school system," said Caamano, a 44-year-old former New Jersey sheriff's deputy with two children at Challenger. "I'd like to see our resources spent on deficiencies and not diluting our assets."
Caamano is one of a few parents on an advisory committee that has offered recommendations about the magnet program to superintendent Bryan Blavatt, who in turn has brought a proposal to the board.
The committee, which also includes principals, teachers and district staffers, has drafted a policy that would create neighborhood zones for Challenger and for Chocachatti Elementary School, which has arts and MicroSociety programs. Both schools attract students from throughout the county; currently, 70 percent of students gain admission through a portfolio application process and 30 percent are admitted through a lottery. Currently, there is no provision that requires admission of students who live in the neighborhoods near the schools.
The draft policy calls for up to 40 percent of the total student population from each school to come from the neighborhood zones. These students would not have to apply.
Critics of the proposal say that 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.
Parents and students seek out the programs and, in the case of the portfolio process, work hard to gain admission, and that effort correlates to increased involvement, said Laura Page, another committee member who is circulating a petition to keep the current magnet admission policy intact.
"The bottom line is this is a program of opportunity, a program of choice, that is successful, and part of the reason this works is because of parent buy-in," Caamano said.
Caamano and Page, whether they mean to be or not, are on the front line of a wider debate that has simmered for years about how the district should provide equitable access to theme-specific programs.
The programs at Chocachatti and Challenger are clearly successful, and allowing neighborhood children to attend won't change that, Blavatt contends.
"The program should stand on the value of the program, not by controlling the population," he said.
Blavatt has made it clear that the move would be a step toward a district comprised entirely of neighborhood schools that contain programs available to students from throughout the county who have interest, he said.
This would mean offering the option for all students to apply for access to, for example, the environmental science program at Floyd K-8 in Spring Hill, the global studies program at Brooksville Elementary and the single-gender program at Westside Elementary in Spring Hill, Blavatt said. And it would mean developing more themes at other schools, though he acknowledged the tight budget currently limits those options.
"What is the concept, what is the philosophy we're looking for?" he asked. "I feel obligated to at least raise the question."
Not every committee member approved of the proposal to create partial zones at Chocachatti and Challenger, but a majority did, Blavatt told the School Board during a workshop earlier this month.
Among those who voted against the idea were the two schools' principals.
Challenger principal Sue Stoops told the Times Thursday that she does not outright oppose the idea of a partial zone, and she does not worry that the culture at Challenger would suffer. She said she could not support the proposal because she didn't have enough specifics about how the change would be implemented.
"I don't think it will change the complexion of our school at all, but I just need the plan," Stoops said. "I didn't have enough answers."
One of her biggest concerns is the impact on the size of the school population. Challenger is already bulging with about 1,650 students. Of those, roughly 400 attend the Quest gifted program.
The board needs to answer the philosophical questions first, Blavatt said.
The neighborhood zones would not be implemented until the 2013-14 school year, giving the district plenty of time to work on logistics. It would take years for the neighborhood students to account for 40 percent of the school population, he said.
Page and Caamano are encouraging parents to show up in force for the Tuesday workshop, slated for 2 p.m. at the district office in Brooksville, and for the evening meeting at 7 p.m. A final decision on the issue is not expected before Nov. 1.
Parents are welcome to attend the workshop, but should not expect to be heard during the discussion, said board Chairman James Yant. The evening meeting is when the public is afforded time to comment, Yant said.
Yant said he is not yet leaning one way or another on the issue, but said he was eager to hear all sides and consider what is best for the entire district. The potential impact on a tight budget will factor heavily in his decision, he said.
"That's the wise way to handle inflammatory issues," Yant said. "Listen and try to make the right decision."
Back on Elgin Boulevard, Caamano drew honks from motorists Thursday morning as clouds gave way to patches of blue sky.
Like Stoops, he said the lack of details troubled him, but that he's willing to listen.
"I'm a reasonable man," Caamano said. "I'm just not one to go with the flow to avoid the pains of fighting for what's worth fighting for."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.