Hernando school district to take over education at former Eckerd Connects program for troubled boys

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District Office
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Hernando County School District Office
Published Dec. 12, 2018

BROOKSVILLE —The Hernando County School District will be responsible for educating boys at an area residential treatment facility starting next semester. But it comes after a hurried contract creation and with an uncertain path ahead that one district official described as "building the plane as we're flying it."

Judy Everett, a supervisor of exceptional student support services, met with the School Board Tuesday to explain the plan to take over schooling at the Center for Success and Independence-Brooksville Academy, a Department of Juvenile Justice-contracted facility. The Culbreath Road site previously was run by Eckerd Connects and was known as the Eckerd Kids Youth Challenge Program. A residential treatment corporation called Youth Opportunity Investments took over the contract in September.

"There's a lot of barriers here," Everett said. "I'll be perfectly honest with you: We had six weeks to figure this out."

Everett told the board that the district couldn't help rushing. State law requires that the local district provide education at the facility, which treats boys who were convicted of crimes and have mental health or substance-abuse problems. When Eckerd ran the program, it contracted with Pinellas County schools, sparing Hernando from the duty. That changed with the new operator.

Despite its hesitations, the school board Tuesday night voted to approve the contract with Youth Opportunity Investments.

Hernando schools' role at the facility will start on Dec. 21, and classes likely will start around Jan. 2, Everett said.

About 60 boys aged 12 to 18 are at Brooksville Academy. They've come from all over the state, although none of the current students are from Hernando County. Youth Opportunity Investments president Jim Hill said most of the boys were involved in crimes such as burglary and auto theft, and they typically stay for six to nine months. They are repeat offenders, Everett said, and the facility is classified as "moderate risk."

Despite the rushed contract, Everett said the district's goal is to improve education at the facility. She worked at the Eckerd facility for 15 years earlier in her career, although she said it offered voluntary treatment at the time, not court-prescribed.

"We didn't choose this opportunity, but we do want to make it the best program we can," she said. "It reflects on our district. There are young people's lives at stake here."

Aside from providing classes, the school district will handle student records, determine what grade levels students should be in and help them transition to their next educational steps after leaving the program.

Salaries, materials and supplies are budgeted at nearly $200,000 for the rest of the school year. State funding will cover most of that cost, Everett said, but because most funding application dates have passed, the district will have to spend nearly $12,000. Pinellas County schools declined to pass along money it had received for the rest of the school year, Everett said.

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Board members were skeptical. Board chair Susan Duval questioned whether one of the district's guidance counselors paid for extra-duty hours, as the plan calls for, could handle the workload. Duval also worried about the lack of a school resource officer on site; no law enforcement or security officer was present during district visits to the site, Everett said.

It's unclear whether current staff members will stay in their teaching positions or the district will hire new teachers. Everett said she wouldn't know until applications for those jobs come in. Recruiting may prove problematic for positions that require 43 more working days a year than regular teaching positions and a drive to a rural area 10 miles south of Brooksville.

"I'm sure we'll be back to this board discussing celebrations and problems that will be made in this program," Everett said. "If this was an easy thing, if there was any money in it, we wouldn't have been asked to do it."

Youth Opportunity Investments is based in Indianapolis, according to its website, but has Florida campuses in Pembroke Pines, Crestview and Kissimmee. Hill said the program maintained its previous staff in the transition between operators, and the education staffers will become Hernando County schools employees.

The Brooksville Academy offers a full curriculum, Hill said, and works alongside other treatment aspects, including vocational education. The goal is to help the boys get equivalency diplomas or prepare them to reenter traditional schools.

"It's critical, because so many of these kids have struggled in school," he said. "One of the luxuries we have is we have their attention 24-7, so truancy is at zero."

Despite the air of uncertainty, the board commended Everett and her colleagues for putting together a plan in such a short time. Everett said she was optimistic that the district will get up to speed quickly.

Board member Linda Prescott suggested that the board visit the campus soon. She said it's necessary to show the boys that the district cares about their education, even as she lamented that circumstance had forced the district's hand.

"Too bad (the campus) wasn't just a little over into Pasco," she said.

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.