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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Northeast News

New Focus Academy targets special needs teens in Hillsborough


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TEMPLE TERRACE - A first-of-its-kind Hillsborough County charter school is set to open in August to create an atmosphere its founders say is missing in most high schools for students with learning disabilities.

Situated on the grounds of Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, 304 Druid Hills Road, the new Focus Academy is meant to serve special needs teens whose long-term requirements are not being met in the traditional learning environment of teach-to-the-FCAT-test.

"They get lost in the system and they're missing out," said Josephine Isenberg, the parent of a 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who has Down syndrome. It has been a longtime dream to open a school to benefit youngsters like Elizabeth, who are unable to pass the FCAT exam and therefore unqualified to receive a conventional high school diploma.

What's worse, said Isenberg, is that the typical school curricula leaves many learning disabled students ill prepared to lead successful lives following high school.

"It's like they are trying to fit square pegs into round holes," said Isenberg.

So, after months of networking and research toward her goal of founding a school where youngsters like Elizabeth could blossom and flourish, Isenberg is excitedly watching her wish turn into reality.

She was delighted to enlist the services of Frances McCrimmon, a retired 40-year educator/administrator in the Pasco County school system, as the school's principal and Loretta Gallo-Lopez, a mental health counselor with more than 25 years of experience working with special needs youth and young adults, as its clinical director.

Both also qualify as exceptional student education teachers and have the expertise to work in an environment involving youngsters with a range of mental, emotional and physical disabilities.

At Focus Academy, the emphasis will be to build on the students' strengths, McCrimmon said.

And much attention will be given to long-term skill development and preparing them for vocational careers. Upon graduation, each will receive a state-issued Special Diploma rather than a traditional high school diploma.

However, should a student want to go on to college, he would need only to pass an entrance exam, not the preliminary FCAT test that sets the stage for most high school graduates.

McCrimmon describes the formation of the new Focus Academy as a "divine alignment of the right people at the right time."

"All of us see our mission as one that's concentrated more on developing functional life skills, and a place where we'll have a lot more hands-on opportunities and community-based experiences for our students," she said.

Gallo-Lopez, who has a master's degree in drama therapy and plans to put some of those skills to use in working with Focus Academy's students, is thrilled to be involved with the school at its inception.

"We'll look at what these kids can do rather than what they can't do," she said.

Heather Rodriguez, who along with Isenberg is a founding board member of the school, has enrolled her 15-year-old son, Sabastian, for the coming year.

Despite the fact he has autism, he does well academically. But that's not the case when he takes tests, his mother said.

"The system he's been in until now does not recognize his potential," Rodriguez said. "It forces kids to be good testers."

She's confident his new school will better prepare him for a successful future.

Isenberg also is delighted there will be an emphasis on social interaction among students and relationship building.

"I want my daughter to have a social life, too," she said.

Gallo-Lopez said the parents of special-needs youngsters she's counseled often tell her their children face both learning and social challenges. "They say the most important thing is that they have friendships," Gallo-Lopez said.

An antibullying environment, added McCrimmon, also will be of primary importance at the school. "We want kids to feel they are safe from that at this school," she said.

School hours will be from 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., specifically to accommodate the well being of teens, who often don't usually get enough sleep at night.

But for those who arrive early, there will be a fee-based AM Rally from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. with social activities to help students prepare for the school day ahead.

In addition, a fee-based after-school enrichment program will be offered from 3:45 to 6 p.m. It will feature such options as culinary arts in the school's kitchen, drama therapy on a soon-to-be-built stage in the facility's multipurpose room and various sports on the campus basketball courts and athletic field.

The school is geared for students ages 14 to 22 but the upcoming school year's enrollment will be limited to 14- and 15-year-olds.

An open house is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. July 21.

Visit www.focusacademytampa.org or call (813) 922-1919 for more information.

Joyce McKenzie can be reached at JoyceCMcKenzie@gmail.com.

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