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Quest Gifted Center in Hernando may move to Challenger K-8

BROOKSVILLE — If the Quest Gifted Center is to be moved from Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill, the best new home would be Challenger K-8.

That's the recommendation from school district staff and the Gifted Advisory Council comprised of parents, teachers and administrators and community members.

Overcrowding at Explorer and a desire to serve more of the district's highest-performing students has prompted School Board members in recent months to suggest that moving the center's roughly 246 students is may be the best option.

But to where?

The board will discuss the issue at a special meeting at 6 tonight at district headquarters, 919 N. Broad St.

Challenger is "the ideal candidate" for the center among four other options, said Cathy Dofka, director of exceptional student education.

"Timewise, we could do it the easiest and it would be a pretty smooth transition," Dofka said. "Everything we're doing at Explorer would transfer."

Located on Elgin Boulevard a few miles east of Explorer, Challenger has a nearly identical design and already features the technology and configuration to accommodate the center, Dofka said. The school is more centrally located, and gifted students would still get interaction with peers in general education.

One of the biggest advantages, Dofka said: Since Challenger is a magnet school, attendance there can be capped to keep overcrowding at bay.

The gifted center is putting the squeeze on general education classes at Explorer, a neighborhood zoned school. State law requires districts to meet the needs of all gifted students, so if enrollment grows, those packed general education classrooms will get even tighter.

With 1,558 students this year, Challenger is already at capacity, so the number of new students admitted for the next two years would have to be scaled back, Dofka said. The school may require a portable classroom for the first year or two, likely to be used for elective courses such as music and art.

Quest's current enrollment represents roughly 66 percent of the district's gifted population of an estimated 373 students. There are already 94 students identified as gifted at Challenger, Dofka said.

The district might spend as much as $175,000 to modify some of Challenger's general education classrooms for use by the gifted program. But the additional state dollars that would come by increasing the gifted center would help offset that.

As well, the district would save the money paid to bus gifted students to Explorer from throughout the county because those students could use the transportation system already in place for Challenger's magnet program.

The School Board last year initially decided to put the Quest program at Challenger, then changed direction. Challenger had already done some planning then and is simply updating that now to prepare for a possible move, principal Sue Stoops said.

"We're ready," Stoops said. "We've got a good basic plan in place."

Dofka will present other options to the board today, including:

• Convert Fox Chapel Middle in Spring Hill to a K-8 school and move the gifted center there. That conversion would cost more than $900,000 and would require shifting of attendance boundaries. Also, Fox Chapel is farther west than Explorer, making for a long trip for eastside students.

• Move the program to Fox Chapel without a K-8 conversion. That could cost about $300,000 and gifted students wouldn't get to interact with peers.

• Move the program to the current ninth grade center at Central High School, which may have space next year. Converting the building could cost about $605,000, and some parents could have concerns about putting younger children on a high school campus and buses. The option to use the building as a ninth grade center again at some point would disappear.

• Create a campus of portable buildings on district land on Mobley Road in Brooksville. The board has already instructed the facilities department to sell 52 unneeded portables, but there is still time to change course, said facilities director Bo Bavota. In October, Bavota pitched the idea to create a campus of portables for several possible uses including a gifted center. He estimated the cost to set up the campus to be $4.6 million.

Gifted advisory council members voted 9 to 1 in favor of Challenger at a recent meeting, said Jim Malcolm, a former School Board member and the community representative for the council. In a survey of parents asking where the center should go if moved, 129 of 160 favored Challenger, Malcolm said.

"It's the logical choice," he said.

Malcolm sat on the board when the decision to put the Quest Center at Explorer was made last year. He preferred Challenger then, too.

Not everyone favors a move. Several parents showed up to a gifted advisory council meeting last week to voice their opposition, saying they didn't want to uproot the program.

Board member Pat Fagan had joined Malcolm last year in supporting Challenger as Quest's first home. Fagan said the advantages to moving the program there now are clear but he is willing to consider other views.

"I want to listen to both sides before I make my final determination," Fagan said.

A decision has to be made soon. The application process for Challenger has already started.

Stacey Holcomb moved her daughter to Quest this year and said she is pleased with how the curriculum is serving the second grader. Holcomb said she figures the impact to students would be minimal since the entire program would move, teachers and all.

"I just want a stable program, and I think Challenger offers that," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Quest Gifted Center in Hernando may move to Challenger K-8 12/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 8:31pm]

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