Keys Center Academy, the alternative school in Monroe County reserved for girls, is a model program that will somehow survive as its own school rather than fall to the wayside in the aftermath of budget cuts, Superintendent Jesus Jara and his top administrators said Wednesday.
"I heard loud and clear that we need to keep the boys and girls separate," said Jara. "That is important and we will do that. Let's figure it out and make it work."
After reviewing and crunching the numbers, Jara said Wednesday that the average per-student cost at Key West High School is $11,000, while the per-student cost for the alternative girls school is $13,900.
Combined, the boys and girls programs in Key West cost the district about $319,000 -- not the more-than-double amount that one of Jara's directors erroneously had suggested at a March public meeting.
Jara has already begun making teachers work double duty at both alternative schools, for a savings of more than $150,000.
In addition to preserving the 4-year-old program for girls, Jara's attention to the alternative education in Monroe County has prompted his team to replicate the successful girls program at the largely male Academics Connection for Excellence (ACE).
Both schools are safe havens for teens from troubled homes, or students who could not cope with the larger high schools in the Florida Keys.
Frank and productive, the hourlong roundtable discussion Wednesday ended with Keys Center Academy (KCA) staff smiling and hopeful that not only will their program continue to counsel and educate girls, but that it will inspire changes at ACE, formed only two years ago.
"At this age, every student is at-risk," said Jara. "The world and schools have changed since we were in school. It's tougher now. It was tough when I was in middle school."
Jara attended the regular meeting of the school's advisory council meeting, a week after a town hall meeting over the district's alternative education plans drew emotional criticism at the idea of shuttering the girls school to save money.
"We weren't the bad guys; we were there to seek your input," administrator Theresa Axford said of the public meeting. "We need to come up with a plan -- that's not a Cadillac, but is something we can live with so we can show a commitment to the girls and the boys."
Plans remain unclear, including whether KCA will move from the college campus. But administrators and school staff pledged Wednesday to work together to keep the Keys Center Academy intact, rather than simply folding it into the boys program at ACE.
Jara's team, in fact, realized that the boys program housed at the May Sands School on United Street isn't a feasible place for the girls school due to the limited interiors.
Key West High School may have some room, Jara said, or perhaps portable classrooms could house the 22-student girls school on Stock Island, perhaps at Gerald Adams Elementary School or at the current location on the campus of Florida Keys Community College (FKCC).
"We have room at Trumbo Road," Jara said, thinking aloud about the administration building as a temporary location for KCA.
Private citizens have offered to pay the FKCC rent to keep Keys Center Academy at the college, Jara heard Wednesday.
"It's been a really rich environment for us," said Layne Goldman, a KCA director.
The threat of losing the girls school inadvertently -- but understandably -- brought to light the differences in the classroom vibe at KCA and ACE, which administrators openly say could use stronger structure.
"Let's emulate that for the boys," said Chuck Licis, an advisory council member for KCA. "All too often we write off boys as delinquent but rally around girls and help them."
Family therapist Edward Pitts, who volunteers at both alternative schools, at last week's public forum called the ACE school a "loony bin" before storming out, angry that the girls school may be dismantled and the students combined in one classroom. Some of the ACE boys read Pitts' statement in the next day's Citizen newspaper.
"They were worked up," said Jeff Arnott, the district's alternative education and adult education director. "They were saying, 'We're not all that bad.' "
Cathy Sembert, who started teaching at ACE in addition to her job at KCA, said that she heard the ACE boys' concerns that they were being branded as bad kids in comparison to the KCA students. "I talked with them," said Sembert, a registered nurse who became a certified teacher. "Of course they are not bad; they're just kids. They were upset about it."