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Merger of Cahoon Elementary, Van Buren Middle raises concerns

By Kenya Woodard, Times Correspondent
KENYA WOODARD | Special to the Times
Area 7 superintendent Owen Young, center, takes notes while listening to Cahoon Elementary School parent Bobbi Price, right. Nicole Wynn — also a Cahoon parent — looks on during the school district meeting.

TAMPA — Diana Williamson likes the idea of Cahoon Elementary and Van Buren Middle schools combining into a K-8 campus, although it means the former would no longer be a magnet school.

Williamson, however, said she has some concerns about the transition after seeing the former Sulphur Springs Elementary School go through a similar process and not liking the results.

Her daughter Danielle, who is autistic, has done well at Cahoon where teachers and administrators have fostered the "warmest school environment," Williamson said last week at a public meeting at Van Buren.

"They're like a second family to us," she said.

Williamson was just one of dozens of parents who met and talked with Hillsborough County School District officials on Tuesday to get answers to their questions about the district's plan to consolidate under-enrolled schools and redraw boundaries to save money on transportation and construction.

Other schools affected by the plan include Clark and Hunter's Green elementary schools in New Tampa, the Museum of Science and Industry Partnership School near the University of South Florida, and Pizzo Elementary.

Officials say they will host a number of meetings leading up to implementation.

The merger between Cahoon and Van Buren would not take effect until August of 2018.

At the meeting, parents looked over proposed boundary changes and renderings of the new Cahoon-VanBuren campus and talked one-on-one with department heads, school principals, and administrators in Van Buren's cafeteria.

In the nearby media center, parents gave their input via comment cards on the types of academic programming, instructional support services, and teacher resources they'd like offered at the K-8 school.

Prior to the meeting, Tonya McClendon was not happy with the changes because it appeared her granddaughter would have to switch from Cahoon to Sheehy Elementary.

The girl, a kindergartener, is visually impaired and is well-acquainted with Cahoon's layout. Moving to a new building would be a difficult adjustment.

But McClendon said her fears were eased after learning her granddaughter would not have to change schools.

"I'm glad," she said.

But there's still at least one outstanding issue, McClendon said.

"Now, I'm concerned about her safety with the older kids," she said. "That's a big concern."

Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer, said while the merger will make Cahoon and Van Buren one school, it's unlikely young children will have any regular contact with older students.

One way to do that would be to group students by grade range: K-2, 3-5, and 6-8, he said.

Each group would have their own separate building for instruction and use separate media centers and cafeterias.

All of those plans would be finalized once a principal is selected for the school, Farkas said.

Other matters yet to be settled include how to accommodate students who wish to participate in another magnet program, he said.

Officials were slated to meet this week to discuss specifically how to address that issue, he said.

The merger itself has been received well. But parents have expressed disdain about Cahoon — which would keep its animal science program — losing its magnet school status.

"Even if I wasn't a parent, I'd be concerned," Williamson said.

Williamson – whose daughter Danielle is a kindergartener at Cahoon – said she still has lots of questions about the merger.

For starters, will the school's culture change? Also, will the administration be replaced? And what are officials doing to ensure the acknowledgment and embrace of diversity is a top priority?

Van Buren is 60 percent black. Cahoon, which has a magnet program and is 68 percent full, is 51 percent black.

Williamson said she has the option to move Danielle to another school but hasn't decided if she'll do that – yet.

"I really want to keep her here," she said. "I'm hopeful."

Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]