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First-day enrollment up slightly in Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — Enrollment increased just slightly on the first day of classes in Hillsborough County, up 581 students to 179,362 compared with last year's opening day, officials said Tuesday.

But with rain pouring down in some neighborhoods, and schools still poring over class lists in others, it was too soon to say whether the district was facing problems in meeting tough new requirements under the 2002 class-size amendment.

"No drama today," said Bill Person, general director of pupil placement. "But the numbers are tight."

Some schools across Hillsborough are close to their enrollment limit under the new standard, which caps class sizes at 18 in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade, and 25 in high school. And officials fear they may need to close registration at some schools in order to comply.

If district projections hold true, enrollment will likely build over the next few weeks. By the 20th day of school, Hillsborough expects to have 191,568 students, up 1,202 from last year, said spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

At least one school — MOSI Partnership Elementary near the campus of the University of South Florida — has already closed its registration due to the class-size limits, with around 170 new students being bused to other schools or directed to the district's choice program.

"We got 20 new families last night," Person said. "It's a high mobility area, but it concerns me, because we're already becoming a bit stressed in that geographical area."

He said it was possible the weather might have kept some new families away. But given the tight enrollment situation at some schools, staying home might not be such a good idea.

"If I were a new parent," Person said, "I'd do everything I could to make sure I got a seat."

Across Hillsborough on Tuesday, teachers and students slogged through downpours to start a new school year.

Megan Allen, the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year, admitted that she was probably just as nervous as the students about to fill her second-floor classroom at Cleveland Elementary.

"Every year, it's total nerves," she said. "You want to do your best for the kids and make their first day very exciting and hands on … and just inspire them to try their best for the rest of the year."

Outside the school, parents Paula Gomez and Irvin Noel Gonzalez Ayala were excited for their two sons entering first grade and kindergarten.

"They're not nervous," Gomez said as Jandrew and Erwin ate breakfast in the cafeteria. "They just want to get up early to go to school."

In Riverview, students and some parents stood outside Giunta Middle awaiting the 9 a.m. start. Sixth-grader Hannah Yunker was eager to begin the school year, though she knows there will be challenges making the transition from elementary to middle school.

In past years, "I already knew where my classes are, and I already knew the school," the 11-year-old said. "But I don't know this school."

District officials reported no significant problems throughout the day. Other than a lot of calls with bus-related questions, everything seemed to be going smoothly, "despite all this nasty weather," Cobbe said.

Back at Cleveland Elementary, Allen, 32, was returning to teaching after spending last school year traveling as an education ambassador.

She had a surprise for her class of special-needs students on their first day: earthworms. The teacher dug them up herself to use while working with the kids on observation skills.

"It's gooey," she said. "It gets the kids excited."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

First-day enrollment up slightly in Hillsborough schools 08/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 3:37pm]
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