Proposed changes to Polk's Roosevelt Academy in Lake Wales have set off a backlash among parents of ESE (Exceptional Student Education) students at the school.

  • Roosevelt only school in Florida that exclusively offers ESE
  • Initial changes would integrate non-disabled students into Roosevelt's high school
  • A meeting will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday  

Roosevelt is currently the only school in the state that exclusively offers ESE to its students. Proposed changes by the district would eliminate that status.

"It's the one safe place outside of home,” said parent Kristina Breckel, whose daughter is a 9th grader at Roosevelt Academy. “That will just create a possible bully situation.”

Initially, the Polk School Board proposed eliminating the middle school entirely, and integrating non-disabled students into the high school. Parent Chuck Baker, who has a son in the 10th grade at Roosevelt Academy and a daughter he’s enrolling into the 6th grade, said he’s against both of those ideas.

"I have seen first-hand the benefits of this school,” Baker said. “If they decide to go the course that they're planning on, it's not going to be good for the students, the parents or the community."   
The backlash against the proposed changes earned the attention of the Polk County School Board, which called for an informational meeting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday at the district office in Bartow.

Several parents have shown interest in going to the meeting. They're curious whether the state or the district came up with the ideas.

"The district, the county and the state are just pointing fingers,” Breckel said. “Nobody knows who or why."

"So, no one has come out from the district and said, 'Hey, I made the decision,' or 'We made a decision and this is why we made a decision,'" said Baker. “The parents are tired of not having answers for these issues."

Polk school board officials declined a request for an interview. They did, however, issue a statement that shed some light on the matter.

"The Polk School District, along with the Florida Department of Education, have been working for more than a year to have all students receive standard diplomas," according to spokesman Jason Geary. Students at Roosevelt Academy currently receive special diplomas.

Geary also said Roosevelt Academy will continue to serve 6th grade students and operate as a middle/high school campus. No decisions have been made to discontinue the middle school program.

However, Polk School Board member Lynn Wilson, who represents the district in which Roosevelt Academy is located, said the 6th grade will likely be eliminated after one more year. Wilson said the reason is because the state suggested 6th graders might be too young for that environment.

Educational leaders, Wilson added, also determined that non-disabled students should attend the school to provide as normal an environment as possible.

Parents said they’re worried students with behavioral problems will get transferred to Roosevelt Academy.

"My issue with non-ESE students being integrated is I am being told that these students would be students that have behavioral issues, or are basically kicked out of school,” Baker said. “That, in itself, would be a huge mistake to blend them, because of possible problems with bullying or anything along those lines."

Wilson said he would strongly oppose blending ESE-students with behavioral problem students. The board member also said the intent was positive, but the district did not do a good job with messaging.

Breckel said Roosevelt Academy should become the standard for ESE students, not the only statewide exception.

“As a parent of a child whose educational needs are special. I strongly encourage this to actually be a model and put one in every county,” she said. “Because the school encourages and part of graduation is going to work."