Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Students with learning disabilities, ADD overcome obstacles in one-room school

Arnold Stark, the director for the Academic Achievement Center, helps Jayson Stull, 10, with a biology lesson last month.


Arnold Stark, the director for the Academic Achievement Center, helps Jayson Stull, 10, with a biology lesson last month.

SEFFNER — Arnold Stark reads aloud as his students follow in their textbooks. The subject matter is quite complex. Biology, but specifically, the difference between eucaryotic and prokaryotic cells.

The students in the front of the classroom are as young as 10 years old. They stop and make highlights as Stark advises. The ones in the back, mostly of high-school age, wait patiently while everyone catches up. All, including Stark, have attention-deficit disorder or learning disabilities.

Most of the students at the Academic Achievement Center in Seffner have both, but that doesn't stop them from tackling advanced subjects. The biology book they read from on this particular day is a college text. It's not the only high-level material in their curriculum.

"The language is a little difficult for some of the kids, but I really feel kids go as far as you push them," said Stark, the school's director and teacher. "And you really need to push these kids. I've seen some tremendous changes in our students as a result."

The Academic Achievement Center is an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse that sits beside a quaint country road. Since opening in 1971, students have traveled from as far as Pinellas and Pasco counties. This year, 13 students, in Grades 4 through 12, share the building, and in some cases, the lesson plans.

Stark and the school's one other teacher cater to each child's needs and create individualized curriculums. They also teach to the group as a whole.

"We get very involved with our students," said Stark, 65. "Being as small as we are and having students from different grades and ages, we're a lot like an extended family."

Karen Younger, a single mom from Plant City, has three sons who attend the Academic Achievement Center. Her boys, ages 10, 12 and 14, all have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, she said.

The family's home life was tough before Younger's sons, one-by-one, started switching to the school a few years ago. Since then, she has seen a vast improvement in their academics, as well as their behavior.

"The way that they are able to learn here, where they weren't in public school, it makes my day when I see how far they've come," Younger said. "Here, they're progressing."

For most of the day, all 13 students occupy the classroom. They each have their own reading and math assignments. Science and social science are taught in a group, and Stark divides the kids into age brackets for language lessons.

Despite the disparity in age, students often read the same novels. Stark's expectations of the kids with group lessons vary based on each student's ability level. With the college biology reading, for example, he expects the older kids to learn the concepts and the younger ones to grasp the terminology.

"That's not what you get in a typical school," said Mary Brownell, a special education professor at the University of Florida. "But I don't think what you get in a typical school is always good for students with learning disabilities."

Brownell added that making sure students with learning disabilities and ADD are given explicit instructions and a chance to succeed is more important than the classroom's structure.

Twelve-year-old Justin Mobley, one of Karen Younger's sons, said being in the same room with everyone is "cool, because you get to see what bigger kids do."

Justin, in his first full year at the school, echoed what his mom and brothers said, that compared to public schools, he's under far less stress at the Academic Achievement Center.

"They show you what you've done wrong instead of just telling you that you got it wrong," Justin said.

Some students stick around at the center through their senior year, earning a high school diploma. Others eventually return to public school. Last year, Stark said he had two graduates, one of whom went on to Hillsborough Community College.

Stark is open with his students about his own ADD and learning disabilities, which he discovered in the 1970s after he had been teaching at the school for several years.

"I think it's important for us to be open about those things, and our kids need to learn to function in spite of their disabilities," said Stark, who holds a doctorate degree in biology from the University of South Florida. "They need to know that it's possible."

Although students seem to be in an atmosphere more conducive to their needs at the private school, they're actually under a more stringent grading scale than that of the Hillsborough public school system. For example, it takes a 90 percent to earn an "A" in public school compared to a 94 percent at the Academic Achievement Center. At the same time, Stark admits his grading is subjective.

Students have failed in the past, Stark said, but he sometimes makes exceptions if he sees enough improvement.

"A lot of our kids start out with very poor self-esteem, and they have already failed," he said. "Their learning differences weren't taken into account, and our job is partially to get past the emotional baggage that they're carrying around with them.

"And another failure doesn't help that."

Kevin Smetana can be reached at or (813) 661-2439.

Academic Achievement Center

313 Pruett Road, Seffner

(813) 654-4198

Cost to attend: $5,400 and $5,700 per year, but some students qualify for special-needs scholarships.

Students with learning disabilities, ADD overcome obstacles in one-room school 10/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 9:43am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. The awkward photo of the Pope, Trump and first family that's taking the internet by storm

    Global Warming

    VATICAN CITY — On Wednesday, Pope Francis appeared to make his point with a gift.

    Ivanka Trump, first lady Melania Trump and President Donald Trump meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Wednesday.  [Evan Vucci/Pool via The New York Times]
  2. Tampa police say 41-year-old man shot and killed by ex-boss, investigation ongoing


    TAMPA — A 41-year-old man was shot and killed by his former boss Wednesday morning outside the West Tampa auto body shop where they once worked together, according to Tampa police.

  3. Father and brother of alleged bomber detained in Libya


    The father and younger brother of the man who British police say bombed an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester have been detained in Libya, where anti-terror authorities said the brother confessed to knowing "all the details" of the attack plot.

    Hashim Ramadan Abedi appears inside the Tripoli-based Special Deterrent anti-terrorism force unit after his arrest on Tuesday for alleged links to the Islamic State extremist group. Abedi is the brother of Salman Abedi, who has been identified as the man behind the bombing that killed 22 people and wounded scores at an Ariana Grande concert Monday night in Manchester. [Ahmed Bin Salman, Special Deterrent Force via AP]
  4. Marijuana extract Epidiolex helps some kids with epilepsy, study shows


    A medicine made from marijuana, without the stuff that gives a high, cut seizures in kids with a severe form of epilepsy in a study that strengthens the case for more research into pot's possible health benefits.

    An employee checks a plant at LeafLine Labs, a medical marijuana production facility in Cottage Grove, Minn. [Associated Press (2015)]
  5. CBO analysis: 23 million would lose health coverage under House-passed bill


    WASHINGTON — The Republican health care bill that passed the House earlier this month would nearly double the number of Americans without health insurance over the next decade, according to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

    President Donald Trump held a press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House with members of the GOP on May 4 after the House passed legislation to roll back the Affordable Care Act. [Cheriss May | Sipa USA via TNS]