BROOKSVILLE — For years, Hernando County high school students could take driver's education as a half-credit elective during the school day for a $25 lab fee.
When the school district's budget got tighter this year, however, the driver's education program got parked.
Now the district is trying to offer an alternative. If it's going to happen, though, demand for the course needs to get out of first gear.
"We're trying to get the numbers up," superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.
The 12-week course, offered through the school district's community education program, will not be for academic credit and will cost $100 per student. It is open to Hernando students ages 19 and younger who are enrolled in a district school, private school, eSchool, Florida Virtual School or who are homeschooled.
The class will be at Nature Coast Technical High School from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. each Tuesday starting this week and ending Dec. 6.
The district needs at least 24 students to enroll in order to offer a course. The original plan called for two sections of 24 students each. School officials decided last week to extend the registration period after only a dozen or so students registered, said Denise Moen, supervisor of adult and community education programs.
The last chance to register will be from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday at Nature Coast. Students must register in person because the signature of a parent or guardian is required.
If enough people show up to fill the second class, the district will offer it, Moen said. The class would start the following week and be on Mondays.
"If we can get it going at Nature Coast, there's been discussion of putting it at other places, but we've got to get the numbers," Blavatt said.
The high schools had no problem filling up the course when it was offered for credit during the school day.
By the end of last school year, six of the 12 sections of driver's education that Springstead High planned to offer this school year were already full. Administrators had to tell students to find something else for that spot in their schedules.
At Nature Coast, Vic Cervizzi taught five to six driver's education classes each day, which equaled about 240 students over the course of a school year.
"We had a lot of broken hearts when the School Board decided not to do it this year," said Cervizzi, who is also chairman of Nature Coast's physical education department.
Cervizzi, 62, will teach the district's new course if enrollment hits the target.
There are likely few people more qualified. The longtime high school PE teacher and athletics coach has taught driver's education for 42 years, more than 20 of them in Hernando County. He started at Central High School when it opened in 1988 and then helped open Nature Coast in 2003. Thousands of students have practiced three-point turns under Cervizzi's watchful eye.
So Cervizzi, too, was dismayed by the loss of the in-school program, especially since the district is flush with new equipment paid for with grant money from the Dori Slosberg Highway Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Boca Raton that aims to reduce traffic fatalities in the state. The grant paid for 10 driving simulators — two for each school — four 2010 Ford Fusions, textbooks and workbooks.
The cost to the district was mainly in the staffers required to teach the courses. With cuts to state funding and stricter class-size caps for core subjects, schools needed those teachers elsewhere.
Cervizzi will use Nature Coast's simulators, car and books for the new course.
"I'm hoping it does fly, because I want to impact some kids, and 24 or 48, that's better than none at all," he said.
To get a learner's permit, Florida residents must be at least 15 years old and pass an online exam. The district's course will prepare students for that exam, and students who pass can take the results to the Division of Motor Vehicles to get a learner's permit.
Cervizzi then provides each student with at least six hours of driving time, first in a parking lot and then on the road. As a state-certified instructor, Cervizzi can also administer a road test. A student who passes can take the results to the DMV office to receive a driver's license.
The $100 fee is still reasonable, he said, considering that private driving schools can charge three times that amount, and because most insurance companies offer a discount on auto insurance policies for teens who take a safe driver course.
"The average (annual) insurance cost is over $3,000 for a kid," Cervizzi said. "Any discount you can get is cash in your pocket."
What remains to be seen is how many families are willing to pay the higher fee and cope with the less convenient after-school offering instead of simply opting to teach their own children.
Other Florida school districts have decided to pare down driver's ed programs, said Tara Kirschner, executive director of the Slosberg Foundation. The foundation is named in memory of the daughter of state Rep. Irving "Irv" Slosberg. Dori was 14 when she was killed in a car crash. She wasn't wearing a seat belt.
Most districts have found a way to offer something, Kirschner said. Broward County, for example, cut in-school programs some eight years ago, but now offers evening and weekend courses, reaching thousands of students. Other districts offer the classroom portion and then contract with other organizations to provide the driving instruction.
Kirchner said she plans to reach out to Hernando school officials to see if the foundation can help come up with creative ways to stretch limited resources.
"Our mission is to make sure as many students as possible receive driver's education," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.