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School's outlook brightens

Instead of a funding shortfall, the Academy of Environmental Science will likely break even and enrollment may rise.

Enrollment numbers are far more promising for the second year of the Academy of Environmental Science, the school's leadership told the School Board this week.

With just five students enrolled at the start of this term, the future of the fledgling charter school had looked bleak, but the School Board continued to support the program despite the numbers.

Last week, academy teacher-in-charge Lisa Merritt told the School Board that 300 high school students were interested in the program and were qualified to enroll.

After visits to the facility and further examination, the list was pared to about 100.

"We still need to do some more communication," Merritt told the board. She said the school has tried to give every high school student information on the academy's program.

Students attend the program half a school year, so the first group of returning students will be back at the facility in August. While there, the students take extensive science and English courses with an emphasis on hands-on lessons. When they return to their home school for the other half of the school year, they take their other required courses.

In many of the school's activities, the students are paired with public and private organizations that deal with environmental issues. Among these are Florida Power Corp. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program aims to prepare students for higher education or entry-level jobs in environmental-related positions after graduation.

School Board member Pat Deutschman asked when the school might have the enrollment to add classes to its program.

Merritt said it was less an issue of enrollment than an issue of space. Even now, the program is cramped in a building on the Salt River intended to be a condominium complex catering to barbershop quartet enthusiasts. The facility was bought through a state grant by the city of Crystal River and leased to the School Board as the district's first charter school.

Merritt handed the board a three-page list of student activities this term and updated the board on continuing efforts by the school to secure grants.

The school's financial picture was further explained by Bob Gill, who leads the charter school's board of directors. He told the School Board that information they received several months ago about the school having a $10,000 shortfall, which the district would have to make up, had been wrong. Instead, he said, the school will likely break even for the year.

A grant last year for its start-up and another $60,000 expected for the coming year have helped, but Gill noted that the enrollment numbers become even more important in the school's third year. At that point, the start-up funds will be exhausted and the school will largely have to run on state dollars generated by the number of enrolled students.

The school plans to offer more course opportunities and provide more program interaction with colleges and universities, Gill said.

The academy is hosting an informational meeting for community members, potential students and interested parents at Central Florida Community College's Lecanto campus on May 25 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Academy staff members will be available to answer questions regarding academy curriculum, scheduling and educational opportunities.

The meeting will be in Building 2, Room 103.