DADE CITY — Kristi Morris nearly fell through the cracks.
After she became pregnant, she fell behind at Zephyrhills High School and left. She tried to take virtual courses, but struggled without the guidance of classroom teachers.
Moore Mickens Education Center offered Morris, 18, a new path after the birth of her son, Braylen, who's almost 1. She's catching up in credits and getting the one-to-one attention that a smaller alternative school provides, all while Braylen attends the child care center in a classroom up the hall.
The news that Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning wanted to move her program for teen parents to a portable behind Pasco High School as part of his plan to close Moore Mickens made Morris "pretty mad."
"We would like to keep this place going for our unique family," she said.
And she's not alone.
The teachers and students talk a lot about community and relationships when they reflect on Moore Mickens and its future.
It's a place where teen parents, academic stragglers and students with disabilities eat lunch side by side and then toss a football together outside the cafeteria. Adult students study the English language, job skills and GED lessons in a nearby building without distractions.
They say it's a place where they feel welcomed, not part of the fringes at the traditional schools where they've been before.
And they say they have no interest in being relegated to temporary structures on someone else's campus, with the promise of having access to classes and extracurricular activities that they can already do if they want.
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.
Browning and his team will make a presentation about their plans at 7 p.m. Monday in the school cafeteria. The Dade City Commission has already approved a resolution opposing the move, and the School Board has asked for more information.
Students like Heather Mitchell oppose the move, too. The 17-year-old senior came to Moore Mickens to escape Pasco High, where she struggled in math and felt unwelcome by her teachers.
"To me, I am not missing anything," Mitchell said.
She said putting programs in portables at Pasco High would ostracize students who have spent their lives feeling ignored, picked on or unsuccessful.
The distance was an issue for many of the students attending GED and language courses at the campus. Most walk or take the bus, if they can afford it.
"Every day I walk up here and do a little bit of work to get my GED," said Daridson Camilien, 19. "It's the only thing that is close. . . . If they didn't have this place, what would I do?"
He said his grandmother, parents, uncles and cousins have attended Moore Mickens over the years. He and others said they wanted to keep Moore Mickens active for themselves and others who need an education in a convenient, serious setting.
"At the other school you're going to have the distraction of kids," said Nicholas Valdemar, 51, who also is seeking his GED. "I'd rather have an adult center where people are focused on learning. This is what I have to do to get ahead."
Zoraya Melo, who is working on her English and job skills at the center, had an additional concern about the district's plans.
"Unfortunately, when they start moving is when they start cutting," said Melo, 42. "I want to learn more English, get help in my writing. I am scared. I don't want to lose the opportunity."
Jacob Gerhart, 20, is in the job training program for students with special learning needs. He attended Wesley Chapel High School before coming to Moore Mickens, and said he preferred the smaller setting, saying it's good for students and for the babies of the teen parents.
"There's no other school I like other than Moore Mickens," said Gerhart, who pointedly asked who was going to save his school.
His teacher, Gayle Lovelace, said she worried about what the kids would miss, like their ESE prom, if the district scatters its programs to other campuses.
"We don't even know where we're going," Lovelace said. "It's like moving from a home to an unknown location, and we might lose our children. It's just really going to break my heart."
Math teacher Kim Mehan said her students have told her they were more comfortable with the idea of relocating to portables at the Irvin Education Center.
"There is a reason they weren't successful at Wesley Chapel, Pasco and Zephyrhills. A lot of it was the size," she said, adding that students talked about having too much drama at a high school. "They would come here to get away from that. . . . You can't just take this and move it there."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.