"My goal for this program is stability, from teachers to location to resources and as much support for the students as we can possibly provide to them."
Rob Dill, hired as assistant principal at Challenger to oversee Quest
It's third period, and the sixth-graders are contemplating John Steinbeck. They had read the first portion of The Pearl, Steinbeck's novella about a poor Bolivian pearl diver named Kino who finds one of the most massive and valuable of the sea-born jewels. Now the teacher wanted her students to consider what might happen next.
Some thought Kino and his family would become rich snobs. One girl said she didn't think they would change because, at least in her mind, "money can't buy happiness."
Alexander Stewart, a lanky, bespectacled boy sitting near the back, raised his hand and offered an assessment that left room for an evolution of sorts.
"After they become rich snobs, they realize family is more important than wealth," Alexander said.
Two weeks into school, and Sarah Pennington's language arts class at the Quest Academy for the Gifted is already making headway into a piece of literature typically found in a high school English curriculum.
"But they're getting it," Pennington said. "They've taken this book to heart."
All but forgotten is the tumultuous period that led up to this point, say teachers, administrators and students. It's been six months since the Hernando County School Board made the controversial decision to move the Quest Academy from Explorer K-8 School in Spring Hill to Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, starting this school year.
Not that it hasn't been challenging.
An entire program had to be picked up and moved a few miles to the east. Crews worked to install electronics and bring in furniture right up to the first day of school. Some supplies were still coming in during the first week.
Many teachers are new to the program, and Quest also has a new head administrator who is new to the district. Rob Dill was hired in July to serve as the assistant principal at Challenger to oversee Quest. Dill, a 45-year-old veteran educator, started Aug. 2, just three weeks before the first day of school.
Now, 21 teachers and nearly 400 students in 20 classrooms are in a routine and focused, Dill said Thursday.
"My goal for this program is stability, from teachers to location to resources," Dill said, "and as much support for the students as we can possibly provide to them."
Challenging return to the original plan
Quest opened in 2008 in the brand-new Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill after the School Board decided to consolidate gifted services in one place. The plan had called for Quest to open at Challenger, but board members changed their mind at the last minute.
Then Explorer, a neighborhood school, opened with too many students, prompting the board to consider whether Quest should be moved to make room. Challenger seemed like a good idea because it already had a significant number of gifted students and, as a math and science magnet, had a countywide transportation system.
But board members also acknowledged the concerns of member John Sweeney, who noted that placing Quest at Challenger would cut into the school's math and science magnet enrollment.
Because of laws governing exceptional student education, the district cannot limit Quest's enrollment, so students who qualify and want to attend must be admitted. Challenger can limit its enrollment and did so this year to accommodate Quest, but still had to add one portable unit housing two classrooms. Challenger's total enrollment hovered near 1,667 last week, about 30 students fewer than projected.
"Unfortunately, the magnet program became subservient to (Quest)," Sweeney said Thursday. "It may work out fine in the long run. We'll see how it goes."
"Gifted" is defined as scoring at least two standard deviations above the mean IQ score, and qualifying in at least one category on a state checklist or meeting other approved criteria. The program has a combined kindergarten/first-grade class and runs through eighth grade.
Not every Quest teacher made the move. A couple retired, at least one resigned, a couple took other jobs closer to their homes and one or two chose to stay at Explorer, Dill said. The staff now is a mix of veteran teachers and those new to the profession or to gifted education. Some are still working toward their certification to teach gifted students.
Chris Lewis came to the gifted center from Spring Hill Elementary looking for a new challenge.
"It was kind of crazy getting everything set up, but everybody got it done," Lewis said. "The first day of school, we were ready."
Teachers in the gifted program are getting along well, said Linda Lopez, a seventh- and eighth-grade language arts teacher who started at Quest in its first year. Challenger's staff has been welcoming, too, Lopez said.
"Everybody has been so helpful and nice and willing to lend that extra hand," she said.
Most of the Quest rooms are on the first floor of Challenger's east wing. Though the program has its own curriculum, it's not a community isolated from the rest of the school. Like the setup at Explorer, Quest students mingle with their magnet schoolmates during lunch and "specials" classes like forensics and Spanish.
"Students are commenting they're making new friends through their specials, which is great," Lopez said. "Now maybe they'll have one more friend in high school."
Some opponents of the move said gifted students don't handle change well. But they have acclimated fine, teachers said.
"Now that they're getting settled in and things are smoother, I think they're really enjoying it overall," said Pennington, the sixth-grade teacher. "They've had no complaints and been very positive."
Kama Woodall, 11, attended Quest last year and is now in the sixth grade. Plenty of her friends and teachers made the move, too.
"It's getting better," Kama said. "At first we thought it was going to be bad because we wanted to stay. But it's basically the same as Explorer."
Leading mostly from behind the scenes
When Dill met with his new staffers for the first time, he tried to convey the behind-the-scenes approach he takes as an administrator.
"My job is to help your day go a little better, to be the resource provider that every teacher needs," he recalls telling them.
As a student at Middle Tennessee State University, Dill envisioned a career in law enforcement, not classrooms. The son of a shoe salesman and a cook, he majored in criminology with an aim to work for the FBI or CIA. But he had a knack for tutoring friends who were struggling academically.
"People would often say, 'You should become a teacher,' " he recalled.
He minored in secondary education as a backup plan. Needing an income after graduation, he moved in with a college buddy in Tampa and in 1992 landed a job teaching social studies at Leto High School. In his second year, he taught a gifted class, an experience that would stay with him.
Dill taught high school in Orange County and then in Nashville while he worked toward a master's degree in educational leadership from the University of Tennessee. He got his first administrative job in 2000 as a high school assistant principal in Cobb County, Ga.
He served for a year as a middle school principal and then two years as principal at Kingston-Roane County High in Tennessee. That school housed the county's gifted center. Last year, he served as principal at the Life Skills Center in Clearwater, a charter school for students age 16 to 21 and at risk of dropping out or returning to earn their diploma. The school closed in June.
Dill now lives in Spring Hill with his wife, Heather, a former teacher, and the couple's two sons. Both boys attend Challenger's magnet program.
Dill's background was an obvious plus, Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt said. But references also spoke highly of his style, Blavatt said, and his personality seemed well suited for the job of running a separate program within a school under the purview of a principal — in this case, Sue Stoops.
"You need each other to make it work," Blavatt said. "It's important you have someone there who's willing to work together."
Heather Dill has family in Pinellas County, and the Dill family often cruised back roads while still living in Atlanta. Dill recalls passing Challenger while it was still under construction.
He marveled at the school then and now gets a thrill when he pulls up each day to lead Quest into its next chapter.
"Public education, when done right," he said, "is a beautiful thing."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]