Eighth-grader Dustin Sanderson trudged up the sidewalk to Gulf Coast Middle School on Monday morning, still rubbing sleep from his eyes and with all the excitement one might expect from a 13-year-old boy on the first day of school.
"Wake up, boy, it's school time," principal David Schoelles shouted as he stood in the bright morning sun, beads of sweat already forming on his forehead. "It could be worse."
The boy cracked a smile.
Schoelles, the teachers and students all had a big reason to be excited for the start of the 2014-15 school year: The charter school is now operating out of its own building.
Last school year, the charter's first, the students and staff were forced to work part of the year out of portable buildings at Fox Chapel Middle School because construction was not finished on the school's permanent building on Deborah Drive.
"It's so much more fun to be able to start out at our own place," Schoelles said.
Schoelles played the part of cheerleader on Monday, welcoming students as they were dropped off by parents and buses. He greeted most of the kids — and a fair number of parents — by first name, asking them about certain issues or questions.
"Good morning, Hailey," he said to a girl stepping out of a vehicle.
"Take care of my baby," her mother shouted as she pulled away.
Even more than students, parents seemed excited to be sending their children to the charter school, a replication of the high-achieving Gulf Coast Academy in Spring Hill. With three charters at nearly full capacity this year, Hernando has more students in charter schools than ever before. Charters operate with public money but with less oversight than regular public schools.
Melissa Sanderson said she wanted her son to go to the school because of the strong academic pedigree and the wide range of field trips offered.
"I felt like it was going to give him more of a chance to broaden his education," she said. "Things that I could never do for him he's going to get to do here."
Donna Bohn, mother of 12-year-old Nicholas Bohn, said that her son's first year at the charter school went well and that Schoelles and his staff made her feel at ease.
"Every parent shares the same fear when their child goes into middle school; we're all afraid of what they're going to see," she said. "There was nothing to worry about. Mr. Schoelles … is completely involved in every aspect of this school. (He) knew my son's name before the first day of school last year. I'm not alone. He's just that way."
Bohn said the small size of the school, roughly 120 students, appealed to her. She said teachers are able to pinpoint areas of weakness and help students master them.
"If the child is having a problem, the teacher is able to take the time and hear what the issue is," she said.
Lisa Abdul-Rahim has a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader at the school, having decided to send her oldest, Kadeja, 13, last year when she wasn't pleased with the middle school her daughter was attending.
"It's better than I thought it was going to be," Kadeja said. "I thought I was just going to be with snobby people. It wasn't like (that)."
Abdul-Rahim said she liked how much Gulf Coast expects from its students and how they incorporate life lessons into the classroom.
"You don't get that in regular middle school," she said.
Jason Millan, who was dropping off his seventh-grader, Aryana, said he enjoys the small class size, the one-on-one learning and the after-school activities. He said he's seen an improvement in his daughter's grades.
"They're on top of everything," Millan said. "They have a great relationship with all of the parents. It's more like a big family than it is a school."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.