DADE CITY — They stood and sang the alma mater. They spoke of fond memories, of passing grades, of second chances.
"This is a very unique place," said Chris Barber, who works to help special-needs students get jobs. He described two "outcast" students who went on to graduate and get jobs at a car dealer and in the school district. "These students fall through the cracks."
About 200 people crowded into Moore Mickens Education Center on Monday night to plead with the newly elected Pasco County school superintendent and School Board members to save the school, which serves teen moms, special-needs students, those learning English and people studying for the GED.
District officials have said they intend to move the various programs out of Moore Mickens, then work with community leaders to create some other use for the campus, which originally served as Pasco's first permanent school for black students. Such a move would allow students to take advantage of additional programs at the high school campuses, while reducing the maintenance costs for the old buildings at Moore Mickens.
The move would also save an estimated $1 million in a year where the district is trying to fill a $21 million budget hole.
The Dade City Commission has already approved a resolution opposing the move, and the School Board has asked for more information.
Superintendent Kurt Browning has proposed moving various programs to other east Pasco schools.
Browning reiterated Monday that rumors that the district wants to raze Moore Mickens are false.
In fact, he said, the district wants to work with community leaders to find the next-best use for the site, such as a museum or a community center.
He said the district has no intention of dumping academic programs currently offered at Moore Mickens, but is looking into relocating them to other sites where students have more education options.
Browning said no decisions had been made. No School Board vote had been scheduled. He said he was there to listen. He said he wanted suggestions about how to use the building. Browning stressed that he, a Dade City native, wanted to do what was best for the kids. "Most of you people know me," he said, drawing boos from the audience. He quickly corrected himself and said "you folks."
Community members were skeptical.
"You already made up your minds," said Connie Gonzales. "This is an insult. You want us to make suggestions? That doesn't make sense."
Students talked about how the school provided a safe haven for people who didn't fit in at regular high schools.
"What I cannot comprehend about this proposal is that you have selected the most vulnerable sector of the entire student population," said Dade City resident Charlene Austin. She said it would be difficult to separate the Moore Mickens students from the others at Pasco High.
"Where are they going to eat lunch?" she said. "Where are they going to use the restroom?"
Callie Martin said she succeeded at Moore Mickens after failing at Zephyrhills High.
"I came here with straight F's," she said "I left an A-B honor roll student. Moore Mickens needs to be left the way it is."
Others accused the administration of singling out an east Pasco school to close instead of one on the west side, which they believe is the favored side of Pasco.
"They stole our county seat and moved it to New Port Richey," said Jean Jumonbille, a former plumber for the school district.
African-American residents described a school where they learned integrity as well as academics.
"We are standing on holy ground," said Hazel Wells, a graduate of Moore Mickens.
Margarita Romo, the head of Farmworkers Self-Help in Dade City and a civil rights activist, said the meeting should have started with prayer.
"This school is very special," she said. "I hope it touches your hearts. I hope it's touched the hearts of the School Board." She then led the group in a prayer.
"Heavenly Father … let this place be all that you want it to be," she said.
The Rev. Nathaniel Sims, pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Pasco County branch of the NAACP, urged the crowd to stay involved and emphasize the positive. Speak of why Moore Mickens should remain open, he said, not why it shouldn't close.
"If we continue to do what is right, if we have compassion for one another, this school will be here when our great-great-grandchildren are here," he said.