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Hernando could be next stop for PACE Center for Girls

BROOKSVILLE — The new year could bring about new beginnings for at-risk girls in Hernando County.

Pending a vote by the School Board next month, PACE Center for Girls, an alternative education program for middle- and high-school students, could open as the 20th in the state. If approved, students could begin classes as soon as Jan. 9.

Gail Armstrong, executive director of the private, nonprofit center in Pasco County, also would oversee the Hernando school. She gave a well-received presentation Tuesday to School Board members, all of whom seemed to support the plan.

Board member Susan Duval called the program "sorely needed" in Hernando.

"I think it is a proven program of success, and they have the documentation — at least from Pasco County — on how it works, how it is done and how successful it is," she told the Tampa Bay Times following the meeting. "Honest to goodness, we need this."

PACE, which stands for Practical Academic Cultural Education, began in 1985 in Jacksonville as an intervention program to keep adolescent girls out of the juvenile justice system. Today, there are centers in counties across the state, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk and Pasco, where it has been for nearly 20 years. Although the program is Florida-based for now, Armstrong said the organization plans to expand to Georgia and South Carolina soon.

She said the organization’s teaching model is holistic and gender-responsive, or tailored specifically to girls. Instructors are trained to handle victims of trauma, and to focus on what girls can do, rather than on what they can’t, she said.

During the meeting Tuesday, three PACE students from Pasco County shared stories of absent parents, unstable childhoods and substance abuse, then told school leaders about how the program helped them. Each said joining PACE changed their lives.

One student, a senior at PACE, talked about her spiral into drug use that led to two overdoses before she started at the center. She said with the help of the program, she raised her 0.8 GPA to a 3.3, got a job and has been drug-free for a year.

According to the pending, year-long contract between the School District and PACE, the Hernando center could serve as many as 50 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 who are struggling in the traditional school setting. The curriculum meets state standards, keeping students on par with their peers, and offers both individual and group counseling.

Enrollment in PACE is free and voluntary, Armstrong said, and is most often fueled by referrals from school staff and recruitment by PACE representatives, who already have visited Hernando schools. Girls also can come to PACE on their own.

Classes would be held in portables at John D. Floyd Elementary, 3139 Dumont Ave. in Spring Hill. PACE has paid a one-time, $9,000 fee to use them, according to the contract. Armstrong said the monies were used to "get the portables back up and running." Eventually, she said, the school would move to a free-standing building of its own, but one has not yet been identified.

Armstrong, who has been with PACE since 2012, said the idea to open a center in Hernando originated when local leaders saw a need that was confirmed by population, poverty and school district data. In June, the center became a reality after Florida Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who represents Hernando, Citrus and part of Pasco counties, secured $1.4 million in state funding to support its opening.

"I am super excited for it because I think there is a need for it," Armstrong said. "I look forward to finding those Hernando girls who need a change and helping them shine."

The School Board will vote on the district’s contract with PACE Jan. 9 at 6 p.m. in the District Office Board Room, 919 N Broad St. in Brooksville.

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

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