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Hernando schools took over education at a state juvenile justice facility near Brooksville. Here's what it's like inside.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times The Education Building is the centerpiece to Brooksville Academy, a school within the Center for Success and Independenc, a Brooksville-based clinical treatment campus owned and operated by Youth Opportunity, which partners with state and county juvenile justice and child welfare systems to treat at-risk youth as an alternative to punitive measures. Brooksville Academy currently works with 42 male teens between the ages of 13-19 who have been court ordered to live at the non-secure residential commitment program that provides therapeutic services to address behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues.
Published Jun. 18

BROOKSVILLE — Past the entryway with its portraits of public officials and its unadorned "Wall of Excellence," past the echoing cafeteria that plays host to church services and ad hoc graduation ceremonies, the school building stood in near-silence.

Inside were blank walls, nondescript tile floors and just a handful of voices and footsteps. The teenagers who populate this building from 7 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. most days had gone to lunch.

The building, two trailers converted into one, also contained a computer lab and two classrooms. In the lab, boys in solid-colored sweatshirts returned from lunch and settled wordlessly into a long single row of computer desks, where they'd get a math or science lesson. In the classroom across the hall, a bookshelf burst with secondhand paperbacks: Mark Twain, Mike Lupica, "Harry Potter."

Some of the books, and the textbooks that sat on a shelf nearby, had come from elsewhere in the Hernando County School District. Six months ago, the district took on the responsibility of schooling the boys at this place, the Center for Success and Independence - Brooksville Academy, a non-secure residential facility operated by the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The boys, who mostly come from outside of Hernando County, live in on-campus dorms and are overseen by staffers. The teens typically have been involved in crimes such as auto theft and burglary, an official said in December, and are repeat offenders.

A new contractor, the Indianapolis-based residential treatment corporation Youth Opportunity Investments, took over operations at the facility in September. It previously was run by Eckerd Connects, which had contracted with Pinellas County schools for education at Brooksville Academy. When Youth Opportunity Investments came on, it asked Hernando schools to handle those duties — a request that, by state law, left the School Board no choice but to comply.

School district officials worried the transition would be rushed, and some board members still see room for improvement at Brooksville Academy. But school staff members said the transition was smoother than some feared, and some employees hired under previous management have stayed on, including lead teacher Roberta Eagly.

"I can fill in the gaps historically of what we've done here — problems solved that have worked, what hasn't," said Eagly, who's worked at the school for more than three years after spending seven years on staff at Eckerd's nearby wilderness program. "We all bring different stuff to the table."

That's given the school district staff some stability as it adapted to the particulars of a place like Brooksville Academy. On first glance, Eagly said, visitors probably wouldn't see much difference between classrooms in the double-trailer and those in a traditional school.

But the circumstances are vastly different. Students range from sixth to twelfth grade. With a maximum capacity of about 60 students and a small staff and space, they're sorted into three classes, based roughly on age.

But even more factors complicate that process. Students come in, on average, two grade levels behind where they should be, said Kelly Downey, the district's director of day treatment. And because the program helps juvenile offenders avoid incarceration, its eye toward therapy and substance abuse treatment comes into the classroom, too.

"We take a lot of the therapeutic side and the academic side, and we smash that together," Eagly said.

The students ultimately have individualized curricula. Classes focus on individual or small-group work rather than whole-class instruction, Eagly said. Some assignments help bind the scattered learning levels — Downey pointed to a Black History Month project where students researched and made presentations on historical figures.

The students stay at the facility for six to nine months, which brings near-constant turnover. As of early June, it had 42 students. The shuffle can result in delays and headaches, Downey said, but teachers need to show students they are valued, a feeling some teens may not have experienced in school before. Some may have learning disabilities or struggles that were never attended to, she said, while others simply stopped going to school.

For students who have more school ahead of them after finishing the program, there's no set policy about what happens next, Downey said. Some districts may place those students in alternative schools, but she said the program is meant to help them succeed in traditional schools.

"There should not be barriers to them going back to their traditional school and going to prom, walking across the stage at graduation," she said. "They're doing what they need to do here."

School Board member Linda Prescott recently visited the campus. She complimented the work of staff, as well as improvements to the campus, which she said was "run-down and dirty" at the outset of the district's work there. But she'd like to see the cramped spaces and blank walls updated with better furniture and some color — even if that's just encouraging slogans painted in the hallways.

She also hoped the boys would have expanded educational and therapeutic options in the future: career and technical education, music and arts programs, animal therapy.

"Those kids need some kind of outlet," said Prescott, who once spent a year teaching at a women's prison in Tennessee. "It is somewhat punishment, but yet, you also want them to succeed."

She's looking into grants that could help bring those extra courses to the school, she said. Gina Michalicka, the district's academic services director, is working to get additional books for the school, she said. She hopes to join Prescott in "sprucing up" the place this summer, and after visiting and speaking to students there, she plans to mentor students in her off hours.

Prescott also hopes legislators will visit and contribute more state money to the school, she said. Most of the students there come from elsewhere in the state, she said, but students from Hernando may wind up in similar programs in different counties, where other school districts are in charge of their educations.

Since taking on educational duties in December, the School Board has spent more than $65,000 on the school, not including operating expenses and salaries for June, district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said. Funding from the state is forthcoming, Jordan said, but the amount and timeline were unclear. In December, school officials said they expected the district's expenditures on the school to be about $12,000 for the rest of the school year, but Superintendent John Stratton said in April that he'd learned these programs typically cost far more than their budgeted amount.

It's hard to say what the students think of Brooksville Academy. Youth Opportunity Investments and juvenile justice department officials wouldn't let reporters interview or photograph them. But educators describe them as eager to learn and attentive.

"I just get called 'ma'am' all day," Downey said of the boys' classroom demeanor.

During a recent visit, Michalicka said, one student told her that he was leaving the program soon but felt pressure to get his coursework for the rest of the year done before returning home: "He was concerned that if he didn't do it now, when he was there, it wasn't going to happen."

And sometimes, when students go to Eagly to request new books, they'll lean in close so nobody else can hear and whisper: "Something with a love story."

In the best moments for the educators, success coincides with a point of transition. Recently, Downey found out that four students got the test scores they needed to get their GEDs, or high school equivalency diplomas. She ran down the hallway in elation, stopping to pull the boys out of class one-by-one.

All four were about to leave the program, so there wasn't time for a ceremony in the cafeteria. But the moment of telling them felt significant.

"Oh my gosh," she said she thought at the time. "This is unreal."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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