BROOKSVILLE — For some Hernando County students, middle school just isn't working.
Held back again and again, the students are older than their peers. They become disconnected. They lose interest and motivation. In high school, they're more likely to drop out.
"Their school experience is not good for them or not working for them," said Winding Waters K-8 principal Dave Dannemiller. "We've got to find a way to get them back and find a purpose."
Hernando school officials believe they might have a solution: Discovery Academy.
On Tuesday, district officials will present to the School Board a proposal to create a new school specifically designed for middle school students who have fallen behind two or more years.
It would be the first of its kind in Hernando and relatively unique to the area, district officials say.
"The intent is to focus on the student and their needs and to help them get back on track, find relevancy and find self-esteem," said curriculum supervisor Jeff Yungmann. "A lot of these students need to build up their self-esteem. Some students may lose hope. We want to provide them with opportunities and help them."
The academy, if approved, would open next year on the campus of Central High School, which has significant excess capacity. It could take up to 75 middle school students.
Yungmann said the intent is to not take students from Endeavor Academy, the district's alternative school for kids with behavioral issues.
For all intents and purposes, Discovery would be its own school, with a separate administration and instructional staff. The academy would have a thematic curriculum centered around science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics — known as STEAM — with a heavy concentration on course recovery and intensive support for core classes.
"It's going to be a kind of out-of-the-box approach," Dannemiller said. "We've got to find a different way to reach these kids."
He said that includes a lot of project-based learning.
The school also would have a strong mentoring component and would seek out community partnerships to bolster instruction.
The annual operating costs would run more than $400,000, and it would cost an additional $24,000 to develop the curriculum, according to the district. The cost of busing students was not available.
Dannemiller, who is leading the effort among middle school principals, said the idea for the academy came about because of the district's high school dropout rate.
"We're trying to catch it early," he said.
With a dropout rate above the state average, Hernando has struggled with how to lower its dropouts. Superintendent Lori Romano targeted the issue as one of the biggest problem areas when she arrived to lead the district last year.
Dannemiller said middle school principals, collectively, struggle to keep students who have fallen behind interested in school.
"Their interest or their efforts are not the same as a typical middle school student," he said.
Parrott Middle School principal Brent Gaustad is excited about the possibilities the academy has to offer some of his students.
"There's a lot of option if we can get them caught up and don't lose them now," Gaustad said.
Yungmann said the program is not unique but also not all that common. Typically, these kinds of recovery programs are found embedded within schools — not entirely separate schools.
He said the idea to place the program at Central High was intentional — a way to let the students know they are close to catching up with their peers.
"The logic was the students want to feel like they're part of the high school," he said.
Yungmann said the idea for the academy dates back more than a year. Across the district, there are roughly 200 students who are two or more years behind their peers.
"We're actually trying to impact high school graduation," Yungmann said. "We want to make sure we catch our students early on with opportunities to recover their courses."
The district will need to move quickly to ensure that the academy is ready to open for the 2014-15 school year, he said.
If the School Board approves, hiring for the staff would begin later this month.