BROOKSVILLE — It will be months before middle school students walk through the doors at the Brooksville Engineering, Science & Technology Academy. But the makeup of the charter school — Brooksville's first — is beginning to come into focus.
Surprisingly well, actually.
"I couldn't be more thrilled," said Aimee Whitehead, president of BEST Academy's board. "You kind of sense the need — you feel that you can potentially offer some students a life-changing opportunity. We're getting to that point."
The big unknowns until now have been enrollment, finances and administration.
So far, nearly 80 students have applied, just shy of the first-year target of 88 students. The vast majority — 70 students — applied for the sixth grade, said Nevin Siefert II, one of the school's interim directors and director of administration at Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology, a charter school in Spring Hill. Seven students have applied to enter seventh grade.
Siefert said the school likely will do some targeted marketing to get more seventh-graders.
BEST Academy, as the school will be commonly known, initially planned on starting with two sixth-grade and two seventh-grade classes. Due to the large number of sixth-grade applicants, that grade will now have three classes, taking 66 students, Siefert said. The seventh grade will have one class.
Students can still be placed on a waiting list for sixth grade. Enrollment is ongoing for seventh grade.
Eventually, the school is expected to serve 132 students in six classes, including eighth grade.
BEST Academy will pull students from across Hernando — and potentially from nearby counties.
But the school's target group is students living within the Parrott Middle School zone — more specifically, those living in predominantly African-American south Brooksville.
"We really wanted it to be a community school," Siefert said.
Whitehead said she's excited to offer more schooling options to parents and students on the east side of the county "because there's just not as much choice there."
To make it easier, Siefert says, the school has a tentative agreement with the Hernando County school district that any student living in the Parrott zone can be bused to Parrott; students will then be shuttled from there to BEST Academy.
Part of the school's success will depend on having the right administrator, and school officials believe they've found him in H. Andre Buford.
A Spring Hill resident, Buford has nearly 30 years of experience as an educator, including stints as a teacher and principal, primarily in Rutherford County, Tenn. He was the education supervisor at the Hernando Correctional Institution, a state prison south of Brooksville, for about five years. He is now the education director for AMIkids Pinellas, a nonprofit dropout prevention program that has a partnership with the Pinellas school district and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
"He is highly qualified in the terms that he's not only worked with the traditional schools but with nonprofit schools," Siefert said.
He's also dynamic, articulate, part of the community. He heard about BEST during a church presentation.
"He's a good figurehead for the community," Siefert said. "He's going to be a great fit. He'll be a beacon for kids to come."
His official start date is May 1.
BEST Academy's financial picture is looking stronger.
The big reason?
In early February, the school was awarded a two-year, $350,000 state start-up grant, paying for everything from desks and computers and tablets to a $35,000 engineering curriculum.
"It's vital. It's an integral," Siefert said. "In order to outfit the school for the students, you need to have the start-up grant."
Not only did the school win the grant; it had one of the best proposals in the state, ranking third overall out of 150. The top 60 received funding, Siefert said.
The academy will be at the old Moton School at 835 School St. in south Brooksville, a complex that for many years housed all of the county's African-American students.
The charter school — which, like all charters, operates independently and tuition-free with state funding — will be one of two opening in the fall.
Gulf Coast Middle School, a replication of Gulf Coast Academy, will also open in Spring Hill.
The common link between the three schools: Siefert and Joe Gatti, Gulf Coast Academy's curriculum and instruction director.
Whitehead started thinking about the school after Gatti and Siefert began looking at property in Spring Hill for Gulf Coast's second location.
Gatti and Siefert had begun talking about putting a charter middle school similar to Gulf Coast, which emphasizes science and technology, in Brooksville.
Whitehead, a part-time online instructor at Gulf Coast, quickly became the driving force behind the BEST project. Much of the school's curriculum — and its emphasis on outdoor education, including kayaking and caving trips — will be modeled after Gulf Coast's.
The Gulf Coast administrators helped the school through the charter application period and grant process. Now they are interim directors.
"Here's the metaphor," Siefert said. "We are the training wheels. We're on for just as long as we need to be."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.