DADE CITY — Each day at school, the boy would fall asleep. His constant desk dozing resulted in poor grades and other troubles.
Eventually the boy's case made it before Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, a family court judge who dotes on each kid like a favorite niece or nephew.
An investigation showed the boy's daytime drowsiness was not the result of his mother's failure to enforce bedtime rules. It was his fear of the rats he could hear gnawing on the walls that kept him awake all night.
"He was afraid of them coming into his room," Tepper recalled. "The landlord had a condemned home he was renting."
Tepper, who helped get the family out of the substandard home, cites the story as an example of how the academic problems of low-income children are often linked to other issues, such as poor eyesight, rotten teeth, unsafe living conditions, mental illness, hunger or abuse.
"If we do not have a realization of the underlying needs of children and parents, we're going to have a problem," Tepper said.
That philosophy is behind her dream of opening a school to serve low-income east Pasco students who are at risk of failing, dropping out or being expelled. Sometimes called "full-service" or community schools, they provide a host of services beyond those in traditional schools. Often they are open for extended hours and on weekends and function as community centers for adult education, job placement and enrichment activities.
Tepper recently began meeting with volunteers and staffers of child welfare agencies about next steps. The group plans to tour Evans Community School, a former Orlando high school turned into a community hub funded by a $175,000 grant from financial services giant Chase.
She would like to open a school by January but admits that goal might be unrealistic. Also to be decided is whether the school would be a private, charter or an overlay on an existing public school. Tepper speculated that Moore-Mickens Education Center campus might be a possible site if the Pasco County School District decides to close the campus. Some funding could come from the McKay Scholarship program, which provides vouchers for students with disabilities to attend private schools.
"We really don't know yet what this is supposed to look like," said Ted Waller, a Lacoochee resident who heads a child welfare nonprofit based in Hillsborough. Waller approached Tepper with the idea after seeing high expulsion rates for kids in poverty.
The idea is modeled on a similar program in New York, where the nonprofit Children's Aid Society has helped establish about 20 community schools in the past two decades. Overall, they say, the strategy has improved attendance and test scores, teacher retention and parental involvement. The number of discipline problems has also been reduced.
"It restructures the relationship between school and community," said Martin Blank, director of the Coalition of Community Schools and president of the Institute for Educational Leadership. He said while some traditional schools do provide services such as stuffing backpacks with weekend food, it's done in a "very ad hoc" fashion.
"A principal who is expected to do teacher evaluations doesn't have time to align the work of those partners with the mission of the school," he said.
One of the keys to the success of a community school, he said, is the hiring a coordinator who can act as a liaison between the school and the service providers.
The school and its partners should also use data to determine what the greatest needs are and focus on those first, Blank said. "Is it absences? Are students reading by third grade? Is it access to after-school programs?" he said.
Another critical factor, Blank said, is getting the public school system to buy in.
Pasco assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said the district supports students getting access to support services under one roof so teachers can focus on education. Community centers also are a good idea, and Gadd points to the district's joint venture with the county to build a theater, park and library on a school site at Starkey Ranch.
However, liability issues also have to be considered.
"If I'm liable every time something happens in that theater or library, then the concept just doesn't work," he said. The answer "is supervision and being as vigilant as possible."
Gadd expressed concern about using Moore-Mickens, an old building that is difficult to maintain. He suggested the best route might be to pilot a program at one of the public schools.
"I worry a lot that we are throwing some things against the wall and hope some things stick," he said.
Tepper said east Pasco is a close-knit community so she thinks funding and organization won't be an issue.
Blank said things appear to be off to a good start.
"I thought Judge Tepper is a terrific leader, a person who commands respect in the community," he said. "And she seems to have an agenda committed to this set of ideas. I think it has a decent chance."