Tampa Bay Beaches Score High In Water Tests

WASHINGTON – Beaches in Florida’s Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties last year were found to have risky pollution levels for swimmers less often than the rest of the nation, says an environmental watchdog group.

In the Tampa Bay area, only Pasco County’s beaches had a slightly higher percentage of water samples exceeding bacteria safety limits than the U.S. average, says a report Tuesday by the National Resources Defense Council.

But none of the region’s beaches come close to being rated as having among the nation’s – or even Florida’s – worst water quality, says the council.

The nonprofit group used data from the Environmental Protection Agency to compile its report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches.”

The group says the largest known source of beach water pollution continues to be contamination from stormwater, which carries sewage and pollution from the streets to the beach without treatment when it rains. But unknown sources of pollution also are a frequent cause of health advisories or beach closings nationally.

“What this report means for families heading to the beach is they need to be careful and do a little homework,” explained Nancy Stoner, director of the defense council’s clean water project.

Water monitoring, done weekly in Florida, is important, says the council, because high bacterial levels leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses.

Those can range from gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children, and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal.

In Florida, an average of 4 percent of the water-quality samples taken weekly exceeded the bacterial standards. The regular water-quality checks were done at 308 of the state’s coastal beaches, selected for the monitoring based on usage and other criteria.

The monitoring is carried out locally, but overseen by the state Health Department.

The council’s report found:

Hillsborough County’s beaches mirrored the statewide average of 4 percent of water samples exceeding bacteria safety limits, as did Sarasota County’s beaches.

Hillsborough’s beaches at Cypress Point North, Simmons Park, Davis Island and Cypress Point South did not exceed bacteria safety limits in any of the more than 50 water samples taken at each beach. The worst rate of the nine Hillsborough beaches that were regularly monitored for bacteria was at Ben T. Davis South, where 12 percent of the 60 water samples exceeded the safety levels.

Pinellas County beaches exceeded the bacterial safety limits, on average, in 5 percent of the water samples taken. Of the 15 beaches regularly monitored in the county, Indian Rocks, Sand Key and Belleair Causeway-Intercoastal were those that did not have any samples exceed the bacterial limits.

Of the 16 Sarasota County beaches monitored, none of the more than 50 samples taken at each of the beaches at South Lido, Blind Pass, and Manasota exceeded bacteria safety standards. Ringling Causeway had the worst rate, with 8 percent of its 59 samples exceeding the limit.

Pasco County’s beaches exceeded the bacteria safety standards, on average, in 8 percent of the water samples taken.

None of the 62 samples taken at Anclote River Park Beach exceeded the bacterial safety limits. The worst rate was at Robert J. Strickland Beach, where 19 percent of the 62 samples take exceeded the standards.

“Any time you have high bacterial levels it makes people nervous,” said David Polk, the state health official in charge of making sure counties conduct beach monitoring programs.

But Polk said Florida is shown, overall, to have “very good water quality” and “I think it’s a fairly accurate report.”

The highest rates among Florida beaches for water samples exceeding the bacteria standards were at four Taylor County beaches.

Nationally, Kathy Osterman Beach, a beach in Cook County, Ill., had the highest percentage of water samples exceeding the standard – 100 percent. A Lake County, Ill., beach was next highest, at 83 percent, followed by Avalon Beach in Los Angeles, at 75 percent.

Overall, Florida’s beaches saw a 17 percent increase in 2007 in the number of days (a total of 3,139) where swimming advisories or warnings were posted based on high bacterial readings.

The council emphasizes that a year-to-year increase in warnings or closing may not necessarily be a negative thing – because it might reflect better testing and communication rather than huge increases in pollution.

Reporter Billy House can be reached at 202-662-7673.

Hernando’s Dawn Center: A Safe Place When Home Isn’t

BROOKSVILLE – It’s almost like being rescued from a sinking ship.

On a surface level, they are as different as night and day. Some are young, others old, some wealthy, some poor. They look like any other people you’d see walking down the street – the polished executive, the young blonde graduate, the former gourmet chef.

But underneath the surface, there’s an unspoken commonality: They’ve all been victims of horrific abuse, and have often done the only thing they could – sought refuge at the Dawn Center, Hernando County’s center for domestic and sexual violence.

Defining Domestic Violence

When the Dawn Center’s executive director, Debbie Andrews, speaks to groups about domestic violence, she often cites an alarming statistic: One out of every three women has been, will be or is in a domestic violence situation.

Whether verbal, emotional or physical, it affects everyone – mothers, sisters, brothers, children.

“(Victims) come to the center because they had no choice,” she said. “Home wasn’t safe.”

By Florida law, “domestic violence” means any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.

Defined more loosely, domestic violence is a complex form of power and control, and is often passed through generations. It destroys victims’ self confidence, causes developmental delays in children and continues for numerous reasons.

“It takes women an average of seven to nine times to leave a domestic violence situation,” Andrews said.

Many times, women stay for financial reasons – they know they wouldn’t be able to support their children on minimum wage, for example. Other times they feel they did something to deserve the abuse or fear their abuser will hurt them if they try to leave.

And the aggressor is not always a boyfriend or husband. More recently, the center has seen a resurgence of young women escaping from abusive brothers, uncles, step-parents and fathers, Andrews said.

Some stay. Some go back.

Either way, the shelter’s staff is there to support them on their journey.

How It Began

The Dawn Center – one of 42 certified domestic violence centers serving Florida’s 67 counties – originally began in Hernando County in the late 1980s as a grassroots organization in which local residents invited women and children facing abuse to take shelter in private homes.

“Back then, it was just friends taking in friends, neighbors taking in neighbors,” Andrews said. “It was an incredible movement.”

With the shelter’s current, centralized outreach concept that started in Marion County in 1986, the first safe house in Hernando was acquired in 1994.

Two years later, through fundraising efforts from local citizens and U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, officials purchased the “safe house” currently in use. Three years ago, a new addition was added, with a renovated children’s wing that opened in May 2005.

The shelter – which has top security in place to protect residents and is located in a private, undisclosed area of the county – now has 40 beds and several cribs that are typically filled, though occupancy changes daily. Many women bring their children, and some have given birth while living at the shelter, Andrews said.

From June 2007 to July 2008, the shelter’s staff saw 282 new victims, not including those who had sought help before. Each day, they responded to an average of five to seven crisis calls and provided emergency shelter for 30 local women and children.

Residents receive necessary food and supplies, including clothing, diapers, baby formula and toiletries.

While the current safe house only has space for women and children, Dawn Center staff can also find alternative living arrangements for men needing shelter.

What The Center Provides

The center does not aim to rescue women, but to provide an eight-week intervention program to allow victims to heal, build strength and examine their options.

Staff members are specially-trained to operate a 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence or rape, with advocates available to talk victims through situations and help them formulate a safety plan.

If a person needs to leave their home and a staff member is not available, deputies from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office will meet them in a safe place and transport or lead them to the home.

“Even if they don’t need shelter, we provide telephone advocacy,” Andrews said. “There’s no time limit on how long it takes someone to leave.”

Once at the shelter, a resource coordinator and shelter advocate meet with victims to determine what assistance they need and provide resources, ranging from arranging rape examinations and filing injunctions to finding a job and applying for government assistance.

The Dawn Center also employs a legal advocate in the county clerk’s office, who helps residents with hearings, filing injunctions and locating necessary legal services through referrals and other resources. All information is kept confidential.

‘Hernando County may be small and limited, but the services we have and people we partner with is unprecedented,” Andrews said. “My staff talks to people throughout the state. It’s incredible.”

Life At The Home

By the time they arrive at the shelter, most victims are numb. They aren’t aware of what they’re feeling, what to do next or what their options are, let alone how to make choices.

While many have endured life-threatening injuries, the majority of residents don’t display obvious signs of abuse. No black eyes, big bruises or broken bones.

But psychologically, the scars linger. Many are withdrawn, haunted by years of being molested, beaten, berated or manipulated by those closest to them.

Residents prepare all of the shelter’s food, and take turns cooking and completing chores. Andrews estimated that last year, women in the shelter prepared almost 33,000 meals.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Often, victims and their children have had to leave quickly and have left behind many of their belongings. They must learn to survive without items often taken for granted, such as a vehicle, cell phone, credit cards and for children, favorite toys.

The center’s staff acts as peacekeepers, with ongoing parenting classes and support meetings. They help victims set goals, build their lives from scratch and teach them how to care for themselves.

Since residents share bedrooms, tensions sometimes arise from sharing personal space, particularly between adults and children accustomed to independence.

They also must abide by strict safety rules, which include always notifying their whereabouts, signing out before they leave and being in before 10 p.m., unless work requires otherwise.

After they leave the home, victims rarely remain in contact with the center’s staff. However, the success stories make the work worthwhile, Andrews said.

She recalled a young, 20-year-old resident who lived in the shelter twice with her two young children. She accepted help and moved on, but occasionally calls the center’s staff and leaves messages.

“She just says, ‘I know you remember who I am, and wanted to let everyone know I have a really good job, I just bought a house and am doing really well,'” Andrews said. “Those are the calls we look forward to getting.”

Keeping The Shelter Going

The Dawn Center is constantly facing challenges. Since state funding covers 80 percent of the center’s budget, the center’s staff must cover the additional 20 percent through private donations and grants.

“This is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job,” she said. “It never stops.”

Andrews, who became director in 2005, estimated that she will need to raise $150,000 this year alone.

“We want to make sure there are no fees attached to anything,” she said. “Our outreach through advocacy programs is free and ongoing.”

Dawn Center staff members regularly participate in local and state trainings and conferences, and the center aims to partner with as many other local organizations as possible, such as the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, State Attorney’s Office, Department of Children and Families, the Brooksville Police Department and local hospitals.

And the little things matter more than people may realize. While nonperishable food is easy to come by, the center’s staff struggles to keep the refrigerator stocked with everyday staples such as milk, cheese, meat and eggs, Andrews said.

“Cash donations are how we are able to provide the daily staples of what we need in the household,” she said.

Donations also pay for transportation costs, such as driving victims to doctor’s appointments or providing gasoline or bus passes so they can job search, Andrews said.

The center is also in constant need of local volunteers, who do everything from answering crisis calls to helping women navigate their way through the legal system.

And domestic violence itself is showing no signs of letting up.

“As the economy is slowing down, crime is on the rise – and domestic violence is definitely on the rise,” Andrews said. “Also, because of people losing their jobs and homes, we have more women and children needing our services than we can provide, at this point.”

For information about the Dawn Center or its services, go to www.dawncenter.org.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Mermaid Camp Is A Fantasy Attraction

WEEKI WACHEE – Ann Wallace was not going to take no for an answer.

Years ago, her daughter learned of a place in Florida that has mermaids. When she discovered there was a two-day camp, her heart was set on going. She was not about to be convinced otherwise.

Madison Wallace is 17 years old. She is old enough to legally drive and already has begun looking at colleges.

Most of her peers last weekend were still in elementary school. The Mermaid Camp – held mostly every weekend during the summer at Weeki Wachee Springs – has an age limit. No one younger than 7 and no one older than 14 can be admitted.

“I said, ‘Please let her come,'” recalled Ann Wallace. “This is her dream.”

An exception was made.

When she was a young girl, Madison Wallace would put a ring around her feet and swim with her legs together. It was her way of imitating the way mermaids move in the water. She even taught her friends how to do it, her mother said.

If that wasn’t enough, Wallace shares the same name as Darryl Hannah’s character in “Splash.” It seemed there were some outside forces at work that kept augmenting her fascination with mermaids.

On Saturday, Wallace was seated on the floor inside the mermaid villa rubbing glitter on her bare legs. Her younger sister, Meredith, 14, emerged out of the locker room and joined her.

The sisters live in Hartsville, S.C. They made a special trip 500 miles south just for the camp. They spent most of the week with their family in Clearwater.

“We came down here for this, but we thought we’d make it a week-long vacation,” Wallace said.

The sisters laughed as they talked about the elder’s long-time interest in mermaids. Meredith Wallace didn’t want her sister to be alone among a group of kids, so their mother made a second reservation. Ann Wallace joked it was a way for the younger daughter to attend two camps this summer instead of one, which is normally the limit.

“I think she felt pity for me actually,” Madison Wallace said of her sister.

Meredith Wallace wants to make it known to everyone she isn’t the girly type. She doesn’t share her sister’s love for mermaids or anything fantastical.

“I’m into athletics,” she said. “Basketball, tennis …”

As she was about to find out, the amount of swimming involved in being a mermaid would tire mostly any athlete.

This year, 14 camps were included on the schedule – two in April, three in May, three in June, four in July and two in August. All of the slots were filled. Next year’s dates will be released in February.

There is a maximum of nine participants for each camp. Mermaid Lauren Dobson, who is working her second summer at Weeki Wachee, was the supervisor.

She was responsible for nine girls. She had to teach them a variety of balletic moves – including the dolphin, pinwheel, pikes and side leaps. She showed them how to put on their makeup and wear their wraps over their swimsuits. When one girl discovered she hadn’t packed a suit, she wasted no time contacting her mother.

She even ordered lunches for the campers.

Dobson volunteered to run the camp after last year’s mermaid accepted a job elsewhere. Her bosses knew she would be perfect for it. The 19-year-old college student is a natural around kids.

Secondly, she was a product of the camp herself.

Dobson’s mother is a former mermaid. When her daughter was 11 years old, she enrolled her in the camp. It paid dividends six years later when she applied for a mermaid job while still a senior in high school.

Hernando Today was there to cover her tryout. She was the only one hired out of the seven who auditioned.

“While I was auditioning, it all came back to me,” Dobson said. “I remembered how to do the pinwheel. I hadn’t done it in six years.

“I love doing this because it’s so much fun,” she continued. “I was there. I know how they look up to us.”

Then she looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was around.

“Sometimes, I wonder if they should,” she joked.

The camp runs for eight hours each day. At the end, the students give a performance for their families, who watch from the underwater theater.

Ann Wallace arrived to pick up her daughters Saturday. That was when she disclosed her daughter’s mania with mermaids. She believed she was destined to become one.

As Madison Wallace prepares for college, she is considering moving to Florida. She already knows what she’d like to do during her summer vacations. She told her mother she either wants to work at Disney World – or at Weeki Wachee Springs.

She took a major step last weekend. Maybe she won’t be the only one in the family to do so.

A few moments later, she emerged out from the villa and walked toward her mother. She was still soaking wet and wrapped in a towel.

“It was fun,” she said to the reporter standing a few feet away.

A few seconds later came her sister. Her eyes were open a little wider.

“It was awesome!” she said.

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

Foreclosure Brings Blues To Renter

Ask Donna Dodson how she’s doing.
“Stressed” is her reply.
The house where she lives on Piper Road is moving toward foreclosure. She was served with the official papers in April.
Trouble is, the house doesn’t belong to her.
Court records show the house went into foreclosure in March, but process servers have not successfully located the property owner, William Tsompanidis.
That’s given Dodson, her husband and two grown children a little more time in the house, but her eviction is all but inevitable.
“He’s drained my pocketbook. I don’t know what else to do,” Dodson said.
A message left for Tsompanidis, who has another Spring Hill property in foreclosure proceedings, was not returned.
Foreclosure is not an immediate process and often takes longer than six months to finalize. Renters will inevitably be out of a home at the end, but there are measures they can take to buy more time.
Attorney Karl Klein was asked so frequently about the foreclosure process that he posted a few guidelines online to explain how it works.
Basically, foreclosure is a lawsuit filed by a bank when the property owner stops paying the mortgage. After about six months, there is an auction and, if no one bids higher, the bank automatically gets the property. One of the first things the bank does is get a deputy to clear the property and change the locks.
Here’s how it works:
Phase 1 extends from the period of the filing for foreclosure to the 30 days before auction. This lasts between three and five months. If possible, have a “heart-to-heart” conversation with your landlord early in the process about the likelihood of recovering deposits.
“Find out what we can agree to,” Klein said. “That’s the No. 1 thing.”
A month before the auction, tenants can file a motion to delay auction. A judge has to approve it, so be prepared with a good reason. Common grounds for a stay are: No knowledge of foreclosure proceedings up until this point, a family/work emergency, no money saved to rent a new place to live, recent health issues.
In Phase 3, between the auction and eviction, a sheriff’s deputy will come to the property and post an eviction notice. This means the tenant has between 48 and 72 hours to leave. There are two options to stall this as well: a motion to extend sheriff’s execution, which is usually good for at least 30 days.
The other option is to call the “REO Agent,” the real estate owner, usually the bank, and offer “cash for keys.” Just as it sounds, you can ask for compensation for having to leave before the end of your lease. This can bring in between $250 and $2,500, depending on circumstances such as property value and the resources of the REO Agent.
Throughout the process, it’s important for tenants to remember that they have to pay rent.
For now, Dodson, a part-time seamstress, will continue to consult with Legal Aid for advice in guiding her through these tough times.

Summer Time Sun Damage

It’s hot outside, the kids are itching to go play at the beach, and you know everyone’s epidermis needs some level of protection. But the latest news about skin safety is so overwhelming, sitting in a dark room seems the only safe option.

You’re right to worry. “People who mean well often don’t get the protection they need,” says Vernon Sondak, division chief for cutaneous oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, Fla.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in America. At its simplest, it is the abnormal growth of skin cells and comes in three forms.

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and affects the cells at the lowest layer of the epidermis, while squamous cell carcinoma affects the middle layer of the skin.

Melanoma – the most serious and deadly form – attacks cells producing pigment.

Nearly 54,000 people a year are diagnosed with this level of the disease, says the National Cancer Institute.

The more you know about the dangers of skin cancer, and the more you learn about how to protect yourself, the safer you and your loved ones will be.

Can Sun Exposure Boost My Vitamin D?

Recent research ties heading out in the sun to increased levels of Vitamin D, a key nutrient for bone strength, and that news has been embraced by those who use tanning beds to obtain a darker tone. But the debate continues. For example, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests that diet and supplements can be better sources of Vitamin D than sun worshipping.

“It’s not an endorsement to go out in the sun every day. Ten to 15 minutes in the sun, twice a week is sufficient epidermis exposure for Vitamin D,” says Neil Fenske, chairman of the University of South Florida’s department of dermatology. “There’s no doubt about it, sun exposure causes sun damage and wrinkling.”

What Ingredients Should Sunscreen Include?

Sunscreens are the most well-known source of skin protection, but it seems every day a new product comes online suggesting it’s the best available. SPF, or sun protection factor, numbers are standard on all sunscreens and address the level of protection from ultraviolet B – or medium-length light waves.

Worry less about the SPF number, which looks at the length of time between applications, and more about the spectrum of coverage, Fenske says.

Make sure the sunscreen addresses both UVB and UVA, or longer light waves. Look for a combination of ingredients that are organic (absorbing) and inorganic (reflective) ingredients.

Organics like octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) or oxybenzone absorb UV radiation and dissipate it as heat, according to the Library of Congress.

The old-school white lotions with zinc oxide or titanium oxide scatter UV rays off the skin.

How Do I Assess Blemishes and Moles?

Moffitt operates an annual sun safety bus tour, screening visitors to Tampa Bay Rays spring training games, and finds plenty of people who wonder or worry about their skin. About 15 percent of the 695 people screened this year were found to have a suspected skin cancer lesion or mole. Nearly 40 percent had other suspicious pre-cancerous lesions or moles.

Sondak says people who make a point of knowing their skin don’t have to wait for their “mole patrol” to assess their skin. He says you should examine your skin in front of a mirror once a month and note any changes. Ask the ABCs of skin cancer: Is a mole or growth asymmetrical? Is its border irregular or notched? Does the mole’s color vary in shades of browns, blues, red or black? Is its diameter larger than a pencil eraser? Is it elevated from the skin?

Will Special Clothing Make A Difference?

Any clothing that keeps the sun off your skin is good. Clothes designed with sunscreen in them, or with it washed in with a product like RIT Sun Guard additive, are likely to be more comfortable – and costly. That protection is better than sunscreen because it doesn’t come off in the water, Fenske says.

The best advice may be to have two or three tightly-woven shirts to wear whenever you’re gardening, fishing, playing golf or goofing around outside. A plain white T-shirt, for example, will provide protection comparable to sunscreen with an SPF of 6. “If you can see through it, it’s not giving you enough protection,” Sondak says.

Are Kids More Sensitive To The Sun?

Between 75 percent and 80 percent of all lifetime exposure happens before a person turns 18 years old, both doctors say. That means parents have an enormous responsibility to cover up their kids and teach good sun safety habits. Children younger than 6 months shouldn’t be exposed to the sun at all, Fenske says. But this fact doesn’t mean adults can blow off the risks. Research indicates that adults who avoid the sun lower their risk of skin cancer. More important to our vanity is the need to understand that sunburns and overexposure play a huge role in the advancement of wrinkles, Sondak says.

Will Eating Certain Foods Lower My Cancer Risk?

Observational research the past few years has proposed that eating bright-colored fruits rich in antioxidants can reduce the risk of skin cancer. Sondak says while the concept isn’t far-fetched, it’s anything but conclusive. “You want to eat tomatoes and mangoes? Knock yourself out. … But we certainly don’t know if that’s going to curb cancer,” Sondak says. Cover up instead, he cautions.

Are Some Body Parts More At Risk?

Yes and no. Any skin exposed to the sun is at risk.

However, Fenske notes that a lot of patients he sees with skin cancers seem to overlook their ears and necks. Men forget a balding scalp, too. The nooks and crannies of the ear, Fenske says, are a common site for “dastardly cancers.”

 

Gifted Rules Vary By Region

BROOKSVILLE – As officials at the Hernando County School District publicize free screening sessions to identify more local children for the county’s new gifted center, at least one parent is crying foul.

With her 11-year-old daughter accepted to the district’s centralized gifted center – set to open this fall at Explorer K-8 off Northcliffe Boulevard – Spring Hill resident Colleen Tracy is now in a tough position.

Her younger daughter, a 10-year-old whose teacher initially recommended gifted testing based on high academic performance, missed the IQ cutoff for the program by one point.

Since Tracy wanted her children to attend the same school, she inquired about the government’s adequate yearly progress (AYP) choice program, which gives parents at Title I schools that have not met AYP for two years – such as Spring Hill Elementary – the option of choosing to send their children to a different school.

But she has now learned that her daughter’s high score on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is too high to get her accepted to the school through the choice program, which offers first priority to students who performed poorly on the test.

“First, they’re telling us she can’t go to Explorer because she’s not intelligent enough, but yet she’s too intelligent for the choice program,” Tracy said. “It’s a crying shame. I can understand if the program was full, but they’re looking for more students for this gifted program – and she only missed the (cutoff) by one point.”

A larger issue is that her child would actually be considered gifted in many other counties in Florida, due to differences in minimum IQ score required by each district’s “Plan B,” or a socioeconomic policy meant to assist members of various subgroups.

While an average IQ is thought to be in the range of 85 to 115, a student is defined as “gifted” across the state if he or she scores at least two standard deviations above the mean IQ score of 130 (minus the standard “error of measurement” of three points) and meets at least one characteristic of a gifted student on the state’s standard scale or checklist.

In Hernando County, a student can qualify for Plan B if they have a mean IQ score of 120 and are a member of an underrepresented group – such as a low socioeconomic level or if English is not their first language.

Tracy’s daughter scored a 119, meaning she would have been considered gifted in Florida counties such as Hillsborough, Pasco, Miami-Dade and Broward, where the minimum IQ score for Plan B is 115, in addition to other district-directed characteristics.

She also would have made the cut in Alachua County, where the IQ cutoff for Plan B is 118. More than 14 percent of the district’s children have been identified as gifted.

“I don’t understand how kids in one county can be accepted if they have a score of 115, but kids in another county won’t be accepted unless they have a 130,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s the same testing and the same state.”

Local officials acknowledged that plans vary by counties, but said their hands are tied.

Cathy Dofka, the district’s director of Exceptional Student Education, explained that all districts’ Plan Bs were developed by each district more than a decade ago, based on counties’ socioeconomic conditions and approved by the state.

“We have to go by guidelines that were developed before I ever became director,” she said. “The state can come up with different criteria, but so far, they have not given us any direction to change our Plan Bs.”

There are even larger discrepancies between states, with some states not even requiring IQ score as an identifying factor. While Florida has kept its standard high by labeling its program as “gifted,” other states have a program known as “gifted and talented,” in which teacher recommendation – not IQ – is the determining factor.

Alabama is one such state, where nearly 23 percent of its students were identified as “gifted and talented” in 2004-05. Current data was not available at press time.

However, while initial identifying requirements may vary by region, any student who has been tested in a previous school district and considered gifted (or gifted and talented) is automatically eligible for Hernando’s gifted services. Those moving to the area do not have to meet local standards to be accepted to the program.

Students receiving gifted services bring in $2,100 in additional state funding per child for the district.

Some children who have been enrolled in the gifted program at other district schools have opted not to transfer to the new center, while others are undecided. The new center is their only option for continuing to receive gifted services.

Tracy said her youngest daughter’s teacher at Spring Hill Elementary – who initially recommended having her tested – is transferring to Explorer as a gifted teacher in the fall and believes her daughter is capable of handling the higher-order curriculum.

“Her teacher keeps saying, ‘Let me give her a try,'” Tracy said.

However, unless the 120 standard is changed, local officials said they do not have the power to make exceptions to the rule.

“As much as I’d like to help her, I’m not allowed to take a sibling,” said Explorer’s principal, Dominick Ferello. “(However), I know there’s been some talk locally about trying to get the standard changed.”

Last year, the district reported 2.5 percent of its 22,708 students as gifted. The current state average is 4.9.

Now, hundreds of children who scored high marks on standardized tests have been screened for the new gifted program, with two free screening sessions set to take place Tuesday and Wednesday for local parents who want their children screened.

Ferello said the school could actually face overcrowding issues in coming years.

Explorer, built for 2,100 students, is already at more than 1,760 students with growing enrollment for both the gifted program and general education classes. New students include those moving to the area from other states and those leaving local private schools to attend the new school, Ferello said.

“I’m thrilled that the gifted center is here,” he said. “But if we get more gifted students and need to go beyond the rooms designated for the program, we’ll have to go back to the school board and figure out what to do.”

Friday, there were about 215 students enrolled in the school’s gifted program. Ferello predicted that there may be at least 275 by the time school starts.

Though some parents have questioned the methodology used to determine the school’s zoning – in which some families who live near Explorer are zoned for other nearby schools – officials say boundaries were drawn according to the areas near the school that are most heavily-populated with children.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Mermaid Camp Is A Fantasy Come True

WEEKI WACHEE –
Ann Wallace was not going to take no for an answer.

Years ago, her daughter learned of a place in Florida that has mermaids. When she discovered there was a two-day camp, her heart was set on going. She was not about to be convinced otherwise.

Madison Wallace is 17 years old. She is old enough to legally drive and already has begun looking at colleges.

Most of her peers last weekend were still in elementary school. The Mermaid Camp – held mostly every weekend during the summer at Weeki Wachee Springs – has an age limit. No one younger than 7 and no one older than 14 can be admitted.

“I said, ‘Please let her come,'” recalled Ann Wallace. “This is her dream.”

An exception was made.

When she was a young girl, Madison Wallace would put a ring around her feet and swim with her legs together. It was her way of imitating the way mermaids move in the water. She even taught her friends how to do it, her mother said.

If that wasn’t enough, Wallace shares the same name – Madison – as Darryl Hannah’s character in “Splash.” It seemed there were some outside forces at work that kept augmenting her fascination with mermaids.

On Saturday, Wallace was seated on the floor inside the mermaid villa rubbing glitter on her bare legs. Her younger sister, Meredith, 14, emerged out of the locker room and joined her.

The sisters live in Hartsville, S.C. They made a special trip 500 miles south just for the camp. They spent most of the week with their family in Clearwater.

“We came down here for this, but we thought we’d make it a week-long vacation,” Wallace said.

The sisters laughed as they talked about the elder’s long-time interest in mermaids. Meredith Wallace didn’t want her sister to be alone among a group of kids, so their mother made a second reservation. Ann Wallace joked it was a way for the younger daughter to attend two camps this summer instead of one, which is normally the limit.

“I think she felt pity for me actually,” Madison Wallace said of her sister.

Meredith Wallace wants to make it known to everyone she isn’t the girly type. She doesn’t share her sister’s love for mermaids or anything fantastical.

“I’m into athletics,” she said. “Basketball, tennis …”

As she was about to find out, the amount of swimming involved in being a mermaid would tire mostly any athlete.

This year, 14 camps were included on the schedule – two in April, three in May, three in June, four in July and two in August. All of the slots were filled. Next year’s dates will be released in February.

There is a maximum of nine participants for each camp. Mermaid Lauren Dobson, who is working her second summer at Weeki Wachee, was the supervisor.

She was responsible for nine girls. She had to teach them a variety of balletic moves – including the dolphin, pinwheel, pikes and side leaps. She showed them how to put on their makeup and wear their wraps over their swimsuits. When one girl discovered she hadn’t packed a suit, she wasted no time contacting her mother.

She even ordered lunches for the campers.

Dobson volunteered to run the camp after last year’s mermaid accepted a job elsewhere. Her bosses knew she would be perfect for it. The 19-year-old college student is a natural around kids.

Secondly, she was a product of the camp herself.

Dobson’s mother is a former mermaid. When her daughter was 11 years old, she enrolled her in the camp. It paid dividends six years later when she applied for a mermaid job while still a senior in high school.

Hernando Today was there to cover her tryout. She was the only one hired out of the seven who auditioned.

“While I was auditioning, it all came back to me,” Dobson said. “I remembered how to do the pinwheel. I hadn’t done it in six years.

“I love doing this because it’s so much fun,” she continued. “I was there. I know how they look up to us.”

Then she looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was around.

“Sometimes, I wonder if they should,” she joked.

The camp runs for eight hours each day. At the end, the students give a performance for their families, who watch from the underwater theater.

Ann Wallace arrived to pick up her daughters Saturday. That was when she disclosed her daughter’s mania with mermaids. She believed she was destined to become one.

As Madison Wallace prepares for college, she is considering moving to Florida. She already knows what she’d like to do during her summer vacations. She told her mother she either wants to work at Disney World – or at Weeki Wachee Springs.

She took a major step last weekend. Maybe she won’t be the only one in the family to do so.

A few moments later, she emerged out from the villa and walked toward her mother. She was still soaking wet and wrapped in a towel.

“It was fun,” she said to the reporter standing a few feet away.

A few seconds later came her sister. Her eyes were open a little wider.

“It was awesome!” she said.

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

Area Deaths

Salvatore Cannova, 95, of Brooksville, died Monday, July 7 at his home in Brooksville.
Mr. Cannova was born was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and came to this area seven years ago from Commack, Long Island, N.Y.
He was a shoemaker and Catholic by faith.
Survivors include a son, Samuel of Spring Hill; a daughter, Judy DeSola of Brooksville; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Arrangements by Downing Funeral Home and Cremation Services, Spring Hill.

Dorine M. Rossano, 74, of Spring Hill, died Wednesday, July 2 at Oak Hill Hospital.
She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and came to this area 10 years ago from Holbrook, N.Y. She was a homemaker who loved animals and contributed to the Humane Society.
Survivors include a brother, Eugene May, of Hutchinson Island, Fla.; three nieces, Dorine J. (Albert) Tudisco, of West Hampton, N.Y.; Kathleen (Timothy) Blewett, of Holbrook, N.Y.; Kelly Ann May; a nephew, Robert May; three great nieces and three great nephews.
Arrangements by Turner Funeral Homes, Spring Hill Chapel.

Elizabeth Fleming, 35, of Brooksville, died Thursday, July 3.
She was born in Burlington VT and moved here in 1977. She graduated from Central High School, and worked at Spring Hill Regional Hospital.
Survivors include her mother and father, Michael and Majorie Fleming, of Weeki Wachee; daughter; Courtney Hudanish, of Masaryktown.
Arrangements by Brewer & Sons.

Vincenza Forestieri, 88, of Spring Hill, died Sunday, July 6.
Born in Manhattan, N.Y., she came to this area 21 years ago from Port Jefferson, N.Y. She was a homemaker.
Survivors include her daughters, Lucille Carnevale, of Ridge, N.Y., Natalie Hughes, of New Port Richey, Fla., and Joan Caramanica, of Spring Hill; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Arrangements by Merritt Funeral Home, Spring Hill Chapel.

William J. Hanney, 76, of Spring Hill, died Friday, July 4, at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.
Born in Holbrook, Mass., Mr. Hanney moved to Florida in 1978 from Pennsylvania and worked as a construction supervisor for Envirotech Corp. He fought in Korea for the U.S. Army, was a lifetime member of the VFW and a Catholic by faith.
He is survived by a wife, Mary Hanney of Spring Hill.
Arrangements by Grace Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home, Hudson

Levi R. Thomas, 93, of Brooksville, died Sunday, July 6. He was born in Norwalk, Ohio, a Mason and he loved to hunt.
He is survived by one son, Gary, of Brooksville; several grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.
Arrangements by Turner Funeral Homes, Brooksville chapel

Dupre Lands HR Job In Davie

BROOKSVILLE – Three months after her forced resignation and a lucrative financial separation package, former human resources director Barbara Dupre has landed a new job.

She’s the new HR director in Davie, a suburb of Miami, where she is in charge of six department staffers.

On April 24, Dupre was forced to resign her position as human resources director after a scathing audit and outside legal review uncovered several questionable management methods in her department.

The review said there was a lack of trust and confidence in Dupre at every level of the agency and cited documentation and corroboration of grounds for employee discontent with her performance.

Nevertheless, mainly because previous county administrators never documented those deficiencies on her performance evaluations and government officials were skittish that Dupre might sue, the county gave her a three-month severance package worth $24,900. Add in accrued sick leave, vacation leave and paid time off days, and Dupre left the county with another $15,971 for a grand total of $40,871.

Dupre’s departure was followed 15 days later by the firing of Emergency Management Director Tom Leto, who received a cash-out from the county totaling $9,858 for accrued sick, vacation and PTO hours.

Dupre did not return repeated phone calls to Hernando Today.

Davie Town Administrator Gary Shimun also did not return phone calls inquiring whether he knew about Dupre’s stormy tenure in Hernando County when he hired her.

When she left, Dupre was making $92,487, more than double what she was making after Hernando County hired her in 1998 for $45,182. Part of her boost in pay was because she got a master’s degree, courtesy of the county’s tuition reimbursement program.

At Davie, the salary range for the HR position is between $78,437 and $105,113. HR officials there Thursday did not say where Dupre fell in that range.

Davie’s population is about 90,000, compared to more than 166,000 for Hernando County. It is located in central Broward County, is mostly rural and home to a sizable equestrian community.

The Miami Dolphins train at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

With a median household income of $55,125 (in 2005), Davie is more affluent than Hernando County, with a median of $40,347 (2006 data).

Meanwhile, Hernando County commissioners, hoping to avoid many of the same kinds of problems it got into with Dupre, is treading very carefully as it seeks a new human resources director.

This week, commissioners voted unanimously to revise the job description. Among the requirements, County Administrator David Hamilton said he is looking for someone who can work “as a leadership team member.”

In the revised job description, the job will pay $69,000 to $109,000 – a range that commissioners believe is appropriate for such a high-ranking position.

The county hopes to have someone on board by September.

Just days after Dupre resigned here, Hamilton formed two committees: one charged with finding a permanent replacement for Dupre and revising the job description of the position.

The second committee has a broader focus – to look into the deeper problems that have been allowed to fester over the years in the HR department. That committee is looking into the management deficiencies identified by an outside legal firm and allow the county to “start rebuilding policies and practices” of HR.

Jerry Haines, the department’s HR workers’ compensation and safety coordinator, has been working as interim director while the county searches for a replacement.

Haines told Hernando Today recently that morale remains high in his department during this period of uncertainty.

Reporter Michael D. Bates can be reached at 352-544-5290 or mbates@hernandotoday.com.

Germany Trip Leads To Mix-Up

BROOKSVILLE –
BROOKSVILLE – What’s the difference between a school board-sanctioned field trip and students taking a vacation?

One means the school district could be held responsible if something goes wrong – but sometimes, things aren’t what they seem.

Friday, July 4, a group of Hernando County high school students will depart for a trip to Sandhausen, Germany, where they will spend 17 days living with German families and several days going to school alongside German students.

They will be reunited with the 22 students who stayed with their families in January of this year and shadowed them at Hernando County schools.

While the cultural exchange has become an annual tradition for local students, there’s one difference this year: For the first time, students signed paperwork acknowledging that the trip is not a school board-sanctioned trip.

“It doesn’t faze me one way or another, but I would like to see it endorsed by the district,” said Brooksville resident Cindy Wolaver, whose 16-year-old son is going on the trip.

“I’m just concerned that the German students may not feel as comfortable coming (here),” she added. “They’re sending their children halfway around the world to attend our schools and learn about our community. If it’s not endorsed by our schools, they might seek a district that does.”

Wolaver’s daughter, 20, is also going on the trip as a junior chaperone.

But while the students’ trip to Germany passed through the board in 2003, it has since only been assumed to be sanctioned due to a misunderstanding in the proposal’s language.

It has not been officially endorsed by the school board since then.

“I guess it was my fault,” said Central High German teacher Ron Schildbach, who has coordinated the program since 2000. “Since we created it as a (reoccurring) trip, we didn’t realize it had to be approved every year.”

The trip was initially placed on the agenda for the June school board meeting, but was removed because the students will not be missing any school, said director of student services Jim Knight.

The students were then required to sign release forms stating that they are essentially a group of people traveling together, and not involved with the district in any way.

“They’re basically going as private citizens over there,” Wolaver said.

However, Schildbach said he is preparing an agenda item for an upcoming meeting to gain approval for the exchange program to become a reoccurring trip.

Just as the district has put up $2,500 for cultural activities during the German students’ exchange, the German school district has put up an equal amount of funding – if not more – for activities for Hernando County’s students when they visit Germany, Schildbach said.

“They’ve taken us to Austria and the Swiss Alps,” he said, noting that the only expense to local students is their plane ticket.

The students have either raised the money themselves or their parents have paid it.

Finance director Deborah Bruggink confirmed that there was a $2,500 allotment in the 2007-08 budget for cultural activities during the German students’ visit, but is not in the budget for 2008-09.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.