Pinellas County's newest alternative high school is setting up shop in a former Winn-Dixie. Its students, mostly high school dropouts, will work at their own pace. Computer games will serve as academic incentives.
Sound out of the box? Mavericks High welcomes the label.
Mark Thimmig, president and CEO of the Mavericks charter school chain based in Fort Lauderdale, says the Largo school is the "next generation" in education. He boldly promises that it will be a "game changer," part of the antidote for Pinellas's anemic 74 percent graduation rate.
"You can pour all the money you want into the propeller engine, but it's never going to get you to the moon," said Thimmig, a former vice president of AutoNation. "We got to put a stop to the idea that the customer is the problem, the student is the problem. It's the process that's the problem."
The Pinellas School Board approved a five-year contract with Mavericks last spring. As a charter school, Mavericks will receive state funding but will be free of most state regulations and can craft its own programs and policies.
That means it will have leeway to do things differently than regular public schools, such as offering classes in three shifts of four hours each to dropouts up to 21 years old. Students will move on to the next level once they've mastered skills, not when a calendar dictates.
Their incentive for picking up the pace: a game room featuring John Madden football on an Xbox and Tiger Woods golf on a Wii. The better their academic performance and attendance, the more chances they'll get to play.
Thimmig says the school's approach is tailored to the real dropout, not the stereotype.
"When people say, 'Ooh, dropout kids,' they have this image in their mind of unsavory kids," he said. "That's the furthest from the truth. I think it's extremely important that people realize that dropouts are not some bad kids who are disruptive and disrespectful and not sufficiently intelligent."
Several other Pinellas schools already offer program that help students make up credits like Mavericks, including two other charter schools called Life Skills Centers. But Barbara Thornton, the district's superintendent in charge of high schools, says there are enough dropouts to keep all of them busy.
"I think we always need options for recovering credits that students need for graduation," Thornton said. "That's our goal, to try to have every student graduate who possibly can."
Mavericks, which formed in 2007, has friends in high places. Two former Pinellas School Board members sit on its governing board: Susan Latvala, now a Pinellas County commissioner, and Jane Galluci, who left the board last year.
But not all districts have been as welcoming as Pinellas. Mavericks wanted to open 10 charter schools in Florida this year and ended up with five.
Broward County turned down the company's request to open three schools in 2008, citing insufficient curriculum and failure to provide plans to educate students learning English and those with special needs.
The Hernando School District rejected Mavericks' application last fall, citing deficiencies in curriculum, reading instruction and financial management.
Steve Swartzel, a Pinellas administrator in charge of charter schools, said those rejections had no bearing on the decision here.
"The applications can be different," Swartzel said. "Each application stands on its own."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8413. Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.