Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Education

Hernando to end its contract with private dropout-prevention program

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District has terminated its two-year agreement with Catapult Academy — a private dropout-prevention program — citing the district's improved capacity to serve at-risk students and Catapult's low graduation and high dropout rates.

Nearly 30 percent of the girls at the academy and more than 40 percent of the boys dropped out of the program last school year, according to the district, while only 1.2 percent of the students graduated.

Catapult, in a storefront on Kass Circle in Spring Hill, targets struggling students from the district's high schools and students who had dropped out previously and wanted to return to receive a standard high school diploma.

Though the graduation rate has improved this year, according to statistics Catapult provided the district, more than half of its students have dropped out.

"Had we had good data around the contract, we could have continued it, but the data didn't support that," superintendent Lori Romano said.

Student Anna Bellemore, 19, emailed the Times defending the program, which serves about 125 students.

"For some of us, this is our last chance at a successful future. It's very heartbreaking news for every person involved with Catapult," she wrote. She said in an interview that the program allowed her to progress at her own pace, under the guidance of teachers she described as "helpful." She also said the learning atmosphere had improved greatly this year compared to last.

But John Stratton, the district's executive director of academic services, said the district has more programs to serve such students than it did "even two or three years ago."

"We're in a much better place in our secondary schools … in terms of remediation and credit recovery," he said.

After a nine-year hiatus, the district recently renewed its adult high school program at Nature Coast Technical High School. Though it does not yet have anyone enrolled, students now at Catapult will be able to attend that program either exclusively or in combination with attendance at their zoned high school.

The district also is exploring the possibility of expanding its Discovery Academy — a 2-year-old program for lagging middle school students — to serve high school students.

Of the 46 students in that program this school year, 30 are set to proceed to high school with their peers, and six are "on the bubble," Stratton said. Principal Steve Crognale "and his staff have been very successful with that program."

The money the state pays for each student in public school — typically about $7,200 — now funds Catapult and will be redirected to district programs.

The company, which operates 27 academies in Florida and Georgia, did not respond to requests for comment.

The contact was approved in the spring 2015 by a vote of the School Board, but terminated without one, though Stratton said he plans to make an "informational" presentation at an upcoming board workshop.

Stratton and Romano said staffers have the power to terminate contractors' agreements based on performance, and the contract with Catapult forced the district to act quickly; its deal with the company required it to notify Catapult of termination without cause 90 days before the end of the school year.

Board member Susan Duval said she would have appreciated a report on Catapult earlier, and on the district's plans to serve the program's students.

"I like to know if there is an issue with any project, if it's not going in the direction the staff would like it to go," she said. "It's hard to answer parents when we don't know what that information is."

Board member Gus Guadagnino said about the lack of a vote, "I really don't know for a fact what the (staffers') latitude is on that … but I'm willing to rely on the professionals to make those decisions."

He also said, "I definitely think it's a good move, seeing the results (Catapult) has posted."

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected] Follow @ddewitttimes.

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