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Plan calls for two Hernando school academies to be housed together

BROOKSVILLE — After receiving tentative approval from School Board members this week, the Hernando County School District is moving forward with plans to create a new program designed to help struggling middle school students.

Discovery Academy would target students who have fallen two or more years behind in their studies. The hope is that early identification and a more effective form of intervention will help reduce the district's dropout rate.

"We're trying to find an alternative for them so they can find some success and improve …(and) ultimately improve graduation rates," said Winding Waters K-8 principal Dave Dannemiller, who has helped develop the program.

The academy is expected to target roughly 58 to 65 eighth-graders in the first year, according to Dannemiller. The district has roughly 230 middle-schoolers who are between two and four years behind their peers.

School Board members were scheduled to vote on the new program Tuesday night, but the item was postponed after they had questions about specific details.

The original plan was to house Discovery Academy in Central High School's ninth-grade center, which is mostly vacant. Placing it there would allow students to experience high school life and interact with peers, school officials said.

That plan was scrapped, however, because of cost concerns. District staffers said it would cost roughly $837,704 to fund the program.

Instead, the district came up with a plan that would place Discovery in the same facility as Endeavor Academy, the district's alternative school for students with behavioral issues. The pairing would allow the academies to share resources, including administrators and instructors. Students would be kept separate.

The district says it would cost roughly $1.35 million to house both programs at Central, while locating both at Endeavor would cost $1.46 million. It cost $1.44 million to run Endeavor this past school year.

Superintendent Lori Romano said pairing the programs was a better way to use limited resources.

"By combining, we actually save money and meet the needs of both of our student groups," she said.

She said Endeavor is under-used.

"Endeavor costs us $1.4 million to operate now for 75-plus kids at the highest point of the year," she said. "That's an expensive program. That's a resource that we have to support additional students."

Board members greeted the plan with support — and some skepticism.

"You believe that you can maintain everything that is done at Endeavor, create this new program, put them all at one spot and run an effective program with no additional costs?" asked board member Matt Foreman.

"Absolutely," Romano responded.

The proposal will go before the board July 29. If approved, Discovery likely would be located at Endeavor, in Brooksville, for at least a year until both could be moved to Central, said district spokesman Eric Williams.