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 email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.