EAGLE LAKE - Polk County School Board members agreed Tuesday that ninth-grade centers - separate facilities for high school freshmen - will improve grades and graduation rates. It's just a matter of where and when to build them.

"You can distinctly see these kids being placed at a fork in the road when they reach ninth grade," said board Vice Chairman Lori Cunningham, explaining her support for the proposed centers. "You can see some of these kids taking a higher road and some going the other way."

The rest of the board shared her sentiment, with a few members voicing the need to examine the effectiveness of the centers before committing to major expenditures.

During Tuesday's meeting at Lake Region High School, board member Brenda Reddout was the most vocal about the need to proceed cautiously before committing to a project that would have the county spending nearly $10 million per a center. There are about 10 centers currently proposed for the county.

"Why are we racing to spend money?" Reddout asked. She said she wants to see results from a ninth-grade center that already exists at Haines City High School. "Why don't we do Haines City right and wait three years to see what happens?"

Most of the other board members were inclined to act sooner rather than later. Moving ahead with current plans could mean ninth-grade centers would be open as early as the 2008 school year.

Proponents of the idea say the transition from middle school to high school can be difficult for ninth-graders, both academically and socially, and the centers can make the transition easier. The ninth-grade centers would offer new high-schoolers their own classrooms, guidance offices and media centers separate from the rest of the school. They would also eat lunch at a different time.

In Polk, the possible development of the centers comes at a time when the School District will already be building more classrooms to accommodate the county's growth and Florida's constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes.

Before the county spends money building the centers, board member Tim Harris proposed that schools experiment with moving ninth-graders into their own wing, with their own teachers and guidance counselors.

"Facilities would be a last-ditch effort," said Harris. "We can start the process without the facility expenditures."

Because of growth in the county, board members said, new classrooms will inevitably be needed, whether or not they are ninth-grade center classrooms.

"We're going to be building classrooms anyway. We need to do something now," said board member Hazel Sellers. "If we have to build classrooms anyway, we can build them with ninth-grade centers in mind."

Bob Williams, assistant superintendent of facilities and operations, described the centers as buildings with their own computer and science labs as well as offices for guidance counselors.

"They're everything you have in a school except for a cafeteria, parking lot," and other support features, Williams said.

He seemed optimistic about the outcome of the discussion, but said facilities would be only part of the cost.

"There's also the cost of training and teachers," he said.