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Middle school program at Floyd garners praise, but no promises

The fledgling middle school program at J.D. Floyd Elementary School earned heaps of praise Tuesday from the Hernando County School Board - but no firm promises on its future beyond 2008.

Board members had called the evening workshop session to confirm their intent to add an eighth grade next fall. Founded in 2004 as a choice-based environmental science center, the program currently enrolls around 370 students in grades 5-7 in portable classrooms behind the main building.

But the discussion quickly moved to deeper issues related to school overcrowding, the district's building plans and just how much sports a middle school needs.

"How can we keep a stable population there when it's totally by choice?" asked board member Dianne Bonfield. "I can only see problems with your population and perpetuating it."

Her worry focused on the planned "Elementary J" school, due to open in the fall of 2008 at Northcliffe Boulevard and Azora Road and draw 2,000 or more students from overcrowded neighborhood schools.

That school might draw too many students from Floyd and imperil its choice program, she said, suggesting the possibility of assigning students to it in the future.

"We do want to have the ability to continue the program," said principal Marcia Austin. "We have poured our hearts and souls into it."

Around 30 parents and staff members from the school were on hand at the meeting, and many urged the board to make a strong commitment to the program.

"My son hated science, anything to do with the outdoors. He wouldn't even look at bugs," said parent Iliana Molina. "The program has helped him with everything."

But district officials said turning the science program into a full-fledged middle school, rather than a choice program, would mean adding a full range of sports programs, electives and facilities.

And the school's current 40-acre site won't accommodate such programs, said facilities director Roland Bavota. While a neighboring 20-acre site could allow such building, it might need to be rezoned, officials said.

Given those limitations, board members agreed to support the science program for now but only allow a "limited" sports program. School officials will report back to the board in March with a sports proposal.

"I personally am in favor of totally supporting the environmental science program," said board member Sandra Nicholson.

But she added that the board could not promise to continue it without sufficient enrollment.

"As long as you can maintain the interest, we'll support the program," she said.

The workshop session had been called in part to decide whether J.D. Floyd needed its own deputy sheriff, after parents said the 1,500-student school needed protection from sexual predators who live nearby.

But that conversation proved to be almost an afterthought. Having found the money and qualified candidates, the board agreed to go forward with that plan, using $23,243 in district funds for a half-year's salary.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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