Pasco ponders ‘reimagined’ alternative schools

Educators aim to have a range of improvements in place by fall.
Hudson Elementary School, closed in fall 2020, could become home to Pasco County's west-side alternative education programs in fall 2021.
Hudson Elementary School, closed in fall 2020, could become home to Pasco County's west-side alternative education programs in fall 2021. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Feb. 2, 2021

Pasco County school district leaders have talked about changing the way they run alternative high schools for more than a decade.

On Tuesday, the School Board received a proposal to start the process — and a quick time line to get moving.

The “reimagined” model would continue to serve students in two categories, those who have fallen far behind and those who are getting a second chance after discipline problems. The change would come in the way the students receive services.

It would provide more one-to-one advising and support for the teens. It would expand career counseling and instruction, including the addition of courses leading to industry certifications in diversified career technology principles and workforce essentials. And it would add the option of receiving a diploma from the schools, rather than requiring students who get back on track to return to their regular high schools.

Monica Ilse, assistant superintendent for high schools, told the board that she had met students who purposely tried to fail courses at their alternative schools specifically to avoid returning to their previous campuses. The district needs to establish a path, she said, for the teens who thrive in the environments provided by the Schwettman and Irvin education centers — even to the point of allowing them to choose to attend there rather than being reassigned to those schools.

“We need to find a way to engage kids who are not engaged, find a way to connect with them,” Ilse said.

To accommodate what officials anticipate being a larger number of students, the administration has suggested moving alternative programs on the county’s west side to the former Hudson Elementary School campus. Hudson Elementary closed this past fall, with its students rezoned to other nearby schools.

The site has been used by Northwest Elementary this year, while its buildings are renovated. Superintendent Kurt Browning said he hoped to have the west side alternative school moved to the location by fall.

The current Schwettman site would then close.

The Irvin center would remain open, primarily for students who are assigned there. The possibility exists for opening it to school choice, Ilse said, but that would require the relocation of some adult education programs.

Getting students to come voluntarily to the schools would need to include a rebranding, Schwettman principal Jimmy Rodriguez suggested. He noted that ever since he grew up in the area, people have referred to the school as the place where the bad kids go.

The time has come, Rodriguez said, to “step away from everything that Schwettman means (and) create something for the 75 students ... draw them in and provide something they would be proud to graduate from.”

Board members sounded enthusiastic about the idea, which will come back to them for a vote by mid-March.

“They presented great steps in taking these schools where they should be,” board member Alison Crumbley said. “I think it’s a great direction.”

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Having heard little of the concept before, though, they also had questions, such as what will become of the Schwettman site and whether teachers and administrators would be moving to new locations with their students.

On that latter point, Ilse said the intent was to keep students and teachers together as much as possible.

“We have more success when staff is willing to relocate with programs that are being moved,” she said.

Browning, who called for changing the district’s alternative programs when he first ran for office in 2012, acknowledged it has taken a long time to tackle the topic.

Related: Pasco school district explores alternative schools' mission

The administration approached the concept once before, in 2014, but never gained much traction in making adjustments. Browning said other competing interests, such as dealing with rapid growth, often got in the way.

“It was really never off the radar,” he added. “I’m just glad we are where we are today.”