ZEPHYRHILLS — A planned charter school for autistic children brought elderly neighbors out in force at a planning commission meeting Tuesday night — in the name of safety.
"What about that girl who wandered away and drowned in that retention pond?" one woman shouted from her seat, bypassing the meeting protocol of standing at the podium to comment or ask questions. She was referring to Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome, who managed to walk out of a Tampa middle school unnoticed in October and drowned in a nearby pond.
Tom Porter, vice president of schools for Quest Inc., assured the residents of Majestic Oaks mobile home park that student safety is a top concern with school officials as well. Quest is a nonprofit organization assisting children with disabilities, started more than 50 years ago by a group of parents.
With a ratio of one certified teacher for every four to five students, plus teacher assistants, the likelihood of a child wandering away is slim, Porter said.
"The only time they won't be in a classroom is during recess," Porter said. "They are never out of the sight of teachers and assistants."
Planning commissioners unanimously supported the school.
Porter noted that Quest operates a similar charter school for about 100 autistic students on the grounds of a Catholic church in Tampa, which has an unfenced retention pond nearby. In the six years the school has been open, there have been no problems with children wandering away, he said.
The Pasco County School Board gave its approval for the charter school in November. Quest will open for the upcoming school year in five portable buildings leased from Agape Baptist Church, which has owned 10 acres at 39735 Chancey Road since 1990. A portion of the church property is fenced, Porter pointed out.
In its first year, the school will enroll up to 38 students with varying types of autism in grades prekindergarten through fifth grade. By year five, enrollment is projected to reach 110 children in grades through the high school level, Porter said. Parents will drop off and pick up students.
Members of the church's congregation, including the Rev. David Brock's wife, Sharon, attended the meeting to show support for the school and to answer questions. Claude Greiner, who serves on the church finance committee, acknowledged doubts about the deal when he first learned of it.
"As a business deal, it's a losing proposition," said Greiner, recounting his advice to the pastor. "But we're not in it for the money. Anything we are legally bound to do, we will do."
Other safety concerns stemmed from Chancey Road, a truck route with a speed limit that reaches 55 miles per hour. City Planner Todd Vande Berg noted the church buildings are at least 450 feet from the road. He said there have been no safety problems involving the road at the neighboring county park, which features several ball fields and attracts hundreds of children and their families on certain days throughout the year.