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IDS faces challenge over planned expansion

The alternative school has attracted heat over its rezoning request. And a controversial program hasn't helped its cause either.

For 32 years, Independent Day School has explored new ways to teach children.

While innovation and a focus outside the mainstream are exactly what attracts many parents to the private school, not every alternative approach has met with immediate acceptance.

A cooperative learning method called Kagan that involves students working in small class groups set off a debate among IDS parents four years ago. But after producing positive results, Kagan has become a regular part of the school's curriculum.

Parents were equally suspicious of a technique IDS teachers began using last year called Brain Gym, a series of physical exercises that researchers believe stimulate the brain. It, too, is now praised by many who were skeptical at first.

"The kinds of things we encourage our teachers to get involved in are meant to better help our children," said Cornelia Corbett, chairman of the IDS board of trustees. "IDS wants to create a unique learning environment."

Now, as the 32-year-old school is poised for expansion, it faces new hurdles. Zoning officials and neighbors in Original Carrollwood are raising objections to the school's plans to develop residential land for a new administration building and school parking.

And the school's reputation has been affected by Avatar, a self-realization program that IDS embraced last year to train teachers and staff. One school employee resigned and at least one family withdrew their child from the school because of Avatar. Critics of the school have not forgotten the relationship, even though a school officials says it has been severed.

At a public meeting concerning the school's rezoning petition, one supporter of the school complained that some neighbors have referred to IDS parents and staff as the "cult people."

Overall, the school appears to be thriving. There are 440 students enrolled, a new middle school has been built across the street from its main campus at 12015 Orange Grove Drive, and administrators have plans to expand. Annual tuition ranges from $6,080 for the lowest grades to $6,580 for the upper grades.

Relaxed atmosphere

Founded in 1968 by Tampa physician William Gatlin and his wife, Marilyn, IDS was never meant to be a traditional campus.

"It was a relaxed atmosphere," said Gatlin, 77. "We hired a lot of interesting teachers who were not tied up in routine school work. They played the guitar and relaxed."

Even parents whose children no longer attend the school still sing its praises. Among them is Tampa plastic surgeon Charles McLaughlin.

"It's a wonderful school that places the enjoyment of childhood as paramount while giving children a great education," McLaughlin said, adding that his son, David, left IDS for Berkley Preparatory School in fifth grade because he needed more academic challenge.

"Had it not been for my child being ridiculously bright, he'd still be at IDS. I think the school is very open-minded. They will not be tied to tradition for the sake of tradition."

In 1972, Gatlin turned the school over to Corbett, who helped boost its prestige with her prominent name and a $3-million investment. Corbett is the former owner of the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team and wife of real estate developer Richard Corbett.

Corbett said she has strived to maintain the ideals the school was founded on and continued to provide an atmosphere where students can learn at their own pace in a non-traditional environment.

"It's a marvelous school with a marvelous approach to learning," Corbett said. "We're open to finding new ways to teach and communicate with kids. We are always trying to figure how to reach all of the kids all the time without having some fall through the cracks."

An incredible journey

Joyce Swarzman, headmaster at IDS since 1996, refused to discuss Avatar. "This has nothing to do with the school," she said. "Where you're going is not where I'm going."

But in a memo last year which former IDS employee Robert Woock provided to the St. Petersburg Times, Swarzman seemed to encourage Avatar training strongly for her staff. In the memo, Swarzman praised several teachers and trustees, including Corbett, for registering for an upcoming Avatar workshop.

Swarzman and assistant headmaster Pam Ripple were among a group of four staffers who planned to travel to Germany for eight days of advanced Avatar training in August 1999, according to the memo.

It also announced weekend Avatar training for IDS staff "who were working in summer, or those now ready to embark on an incredible journey."

Corbett said she reached the Avatar Masters level, which qualifies her to teach Avatar, and suggested that Swarzman may have attained Avatar's highest level.

Woock, who worked on the school's computers, found the movement incompatible with his own religious beliefs.

"I have thoroughly enjoyed my short term of employment with Independent Day School," Woock wrote in August 1999, when he resigned. "However, with the recent emphasis on the Avatar teachings, I am constantly confronted with a spiritual, philosophical and theological arena that is opposite my own beliefs."

Woock said he believes God is his source, contrary to the Avatar teachings.

"Avatar ... teaches that each individual is their own source," he wrote. "Other people can believe what they want on their own, but I cannot be an employee at an institute where the required training sessions teach this theology."

In addition to the training workshops, more controversy was caused by an Avatar meditation method some IDS teachers began using on students in the classrooms.

"There was a focusing technique that was used that was discontinued," Corbett said. "It did involve meditation techniques taught in Avatar."

Corbett did not explain any specifics about how the meditation was conducted or what benefits teachers hoped to achieve with those exercises.

She said the school dropped Avatar when it became clear that some parents and staff objected to the program. She acknowledged that at least one staffer resigned and at least one family withdrew their children because of it.

She could not say whether any IDS teachers continue to study Avatar, only that the school no longer pays for the courses.

"Avatar has nothing to do with IDS," Corbett said. "IDS is only involved with Avatar to the extent that some teachers have taken the course.

"It was one of many different workshops and courses that IDS encourages teachers to expose themselves to. I found it very interesting and broadening, but because it concerned some people, I didn't want to put the school in a position."

Corbett said she believes much of the Avatar controversy has resurfaced because of some neighbors' resentment over the rezoning issue.

The school and those who opposed its rezoning will have a showdown before the Hillsborough County Commission on Jan. 23 when the issue will be decided.

A land use hearing master last week recommended that the BOCC deny the IDS rezoning petition.

"Avatar is really old news," Corbett said. "It has only come up because of the rezoning."

_ To reach Tim Grant call 226-3471, or e-mail him at grantsptimes.com.

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