RUSKIN — Like most new schools, J. Vince Thompson Elementary School boasts a playground, library and a cafeteria ready for hundreds of hungry kids.
And, like most new schools, Thompson was built to address growth in Ruskin.
But Thompson is outfitted with window awnings, carpeted classrooms and some waterless toilets. Those are a few clues that the newest school in Ruskin is different. What makes Thompson special is that it was created with energy efficiency and the environment in mind. It is the first LEED-designated school in the Hillsborough County School District.
Principal Milady Astacio is thrilled she was tapped to lead the innovative school and is looking forward to opening day.
"I'm super excited," she said. "I feel as though I have been keeping this big secret."
LEED, for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green certification program that recognizes best building strategies and practices.
The new school also features durable and low-maintenance dyed concrete floors, a reflective roof and an energy-efficient heating and cooling system. A further look reveals shoe box-sized windows on certain sides of the building to limit the sun's direct rays and picture frame-sized windows on other sides to take advantage of natural lighting.
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Astacio smiled as she walked the school's campus, watching workers tend to the final punch list.
She did not hesitate to step into dirt with her black high heels to check on the progress of a play field, got pumped to see curriculum materials in the library and could not wait to show off the new student desks, which can be linked to form a hexagon.
But she said the real magic at Thompson is the way it will save money, lessen the impact on the environment and teach kids the need to be fiscally and environmentally responsible. Part of the curriculum will include lessons on the environment, energy conservation and recycling.
Astacio, pointing to the carpeted classrooms and concrete floor in the multipurpose room, said cleaning will be less expensive and require far fewer chemicals than the tile flooring commonly seen in most schools.
She said fabric bulletin boards in the classroom will replace the mounds of paper needed to display classroom or student work. And, the Florida-friendly plants and waterless toilets will save water and money.
The awnings, she added, will limit the sun's rays, saving cooling costs and repainting dollars.
"Every little piece adds up," she said with pride.
Schools are no different than other entities growing more environmentally conscious, said Cathy Valdes, a district deputy superintendent.
"It's critical because we need to reduce our energy consumption and conserve energy when possible," Valdes said. "We need to recycle and use the resources we have. Over the long term, we need to save operational dollars."
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Astacio said Thompson also will be a technology-rich school, where classrooms are equipped with the latest laptops and projectors.
"Everything you need for instructional purposes is here," she said, smiling.
Astacio has worked as an educator in elementary school and middle school. She most recently worked at Wimauma Elementary, the last four years as its principal.
Wimauma, a high-poverty school, thrived under Astacio's leadership, earning high marks from the state, including an "A" on the most recent FCAT. Astacio said it was a tough decision to leave a school she loved but was ready to move to a new frontier.
Thompson sits on an education campus that includes nearby Lennard High School and Hillsborough Community College's SouthShore campus. Thompson's exterior is modeled after Lennard. And, Thompson and Lennard will share an innovative cooling system that freezes water overnight and cools the two campuses during the day.
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Thompson will bring much relief to the Ruskin area when it opens Tuesday. Ruskin and Cypress Creek elementary schools have been bursting at the seams because of growth in the southern part of the county.
About 200 students transferred from Ruskin to Thompson and about 600 will move from Cypress Creek to Thompson.
Thompson's enrollment numbers are about 740 now, with room to grow to 950.
As Astacio prepares for opening day, she recognizes that as the school's first principal she has been given a great opportunity but also knows it is a challenge. She has to unite a study body and a staff.
"I have a clear vision," she said. "I want to serve children and support teachers."
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Valdes said the district is planning another school in the southern part of the county, this time a middle school. Its targeted opening is August 2016 at Balm Road and U.S. 301 in Riverview. It will be just like Thompson, a LEED-designated school.
The cow pastures and vacant land in southern Hillsborough continue to turn into housing developments and that eventually results in the need to build new schools, Valdes said.
"It's all because of south-county growth," she said.
Contact Monica Bennett at [email protected]