PALM HARBOR — The small auditorium was packed with parents — the kind that most people, especially educators, don't want to have on their bad side.
The active kind.
Their navy blue T-shirts captured their message: "Leave PHUHS alone. Replicate it. Don't decimate it."
As Palm Harbor University High School faces possibly losing its star academic program to Countryside High next year, superintendent Julie Janssen tried to allay concerns raised by the parents of students in the International Baccalaureate program.
"I know that these teachers have created a family here," she told the crowd of 100 during a heated meeting Tuesday. "And so it's not an easy process if you look at this emotionally."
But for many of these parents, there was no way not to.
In a school district where half of the high schools are rated D's or F's — including Countryside — B-rated Palm Harbor has maintained a reputation that makes it a destination for families seeking academic rigor.
Enrollment there has hit an overcrowded 2,400, and the school has 39 portables. About 567 students are in the IB program. But according to district numbers, nearly the same number of students come from Countryside's zone as come from Palm Harbor's: 117 and 115, respectively.
Toni Yeomans said her daughter, 16-year-old Jordan, knew she wanted to attend the school's IB program from the time she was in the sixth grade.
The once-shy teen has demonstrated a level of confidence that Yeomans attributes largely to the support of a school community that allows smart kids to thrive rather than hide.
"Currently, Countryside High School doesn't support a strong academic culture," Yeomans said, "They're very sports focused."
Though Janssen's proposal wouldn't require Jordan — or any of the other students currently enrolled at Palm Harbor — to relocate, parents such as Yeomans are worried the loss of enrollment next year would limit course offerings for current students as well as future students in the Countryside program.
The smaller the program, the fewer the teachers, the fewer the classes available. If moved, Countryside's program would start with ninth-graders in 2011-12 and then add a grade a year.
Then there's the question of whether 30-plus Palm Harbor teachers would be willing to leave. During their own meeting with Janssen on Monday night, faculty reportedly voiced surprise over the proposal to move the IB program after 15 years of success that includes being recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best IB programs in North America.
"Palm Harbor is a great school," Yeomans said. "They (teachers) have no reason to want to leave."
As parents ramp up their efforts to sway School Board members against the plan, questions and suspicions swirl. How much could it cost to move the program? one father asked Janssen before throwing out a number he said he found on an IB website: $3.2-million.
Bill Lawrence, who oversees the district's magnet programs, disputed the number on Wednesday. "That's just really outrageous," he said, estimating that even if the district were required to follow the procedure for starting a brand new program, it might cost about $50,000.
A majority of the current School Board appeared to be supportive of moving the IB program during a workshop Tuesday.
The district must offer more high-quality academic programs to more students, said board chairwoman Janet Clark. The location of those programs is a secondary concern, she said. "I know people love their schools," she said. "But change is hard sometime."
"The numbers speak for themselves," said board member Robin Wikle, whose district includes Palm Harbor University High.
Still, the vote isn't counted until it's counted — and that's not expected to happen until December, when at least two new members will be serving on the seven-member board.
Terry Krassner, who will replace Nina Hayden, said that given the information she has now, she doesn't support moving the program. "I like buy-in and ownership and making sure we're giving our stakeholders what they want," Krassner said.
Both she and Lew Williams, one of two candidates in a Nov. 2 run-off for south Pinellas' District 7, said they wonder about the possibility of installing another magnet similar to IB at Countryside.
Williams and challenger Jim Jackson, who are vying to replace Mary Brown, both say they're undecided on the Palm Harbor move at this point.
Palm Harbor junior Stephen Urchick said he's not taking anything for granted. A debate team captain, he is gearing up to address board members during an upcoming community forum and a School Board meeting. The 16-year-old said he doesn't want to focus on Countryside but rather on the strengths of the program where it is now.
"You take this gem and you want to smash it up and reassemble it in another way," he said.
Staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.