Little Sydney Chastain's brown eyes grew wide as she stood in the shadow of her new school Monday morning.
"It's really big," said the 8-year-old third-grader, craning her neck up at the three-story building before walking with her parents to class in Winding Waters K-8, Hernando County's newest campus.
Chastain was one of about 730 elementary students who showed up Monday to the 285,000-square-foot school on U.S. 19, just north of Weeki Wachee High School. This year's fifth-graders will start filling in the middle school classrooms starting in 2012.
With a capacity of 1,690 students, Winding Waters has helped ease overcrowding in elementary schools on the county's west side. Construction finished on time and under the $38 million budget, said facilities director Bo Bavota.
Elsewhere on the Nature Coast, the day went off smoothly in Pasco County with no major problems reported, as the district opened two rebuilt schools, Pasco High and Pasco Middle, and debuted its new culinary arts academy at Land O'Lakes High School. Enrollment was essentially flat from a year ago at 67,000 students.
Nearly 21,000 students showed up in Hernando, or 1,535 fewer than expected. That's more than the typical first-day deficit of several hundred.
The transportation glitches were typical, though, said transportation director Linda Smith. At least one bus broke down, some children boarded the wrong bus, but no major issues.
"I was a little fearful we'd have the first day [issues] plus some, given all the changes we made," Smith said.
For the first time, buses were not serving students who live within two miles of school. The School Board voted in June to eliminate the so-called courtesy bus service to bridge a budget gap. More than 2,400 students used the service last year, and the cut provoked an outcry from many parents worried about their children walking along busy streets and near the homes of convicted sexual offenders.
The district added about a dozen crossing guards to busy intersections and agreed last week to provide bus service within the two miles in a few cases where road construction or a lack of sidewalks posed a danger. Deputies were out in force Monday, patrolling near schools and trying to gauge potential trouble spots, said Cpl. Wendy McGinnis, spokeswoman for the Hernando Sheriff's Office.
Explorer K-8, in densely populated Spring Hill, lost 10 courtesy buses and definitely saw an increase in walkers and bike-riders, said principal John Stratton.
The school also saw worse traffic than a typical first day, due at least in some part to an increase in the number of parents driving to school because of the loss of the courtesy buses, Stratton said. Traffic snarled on Northcliffe Boulevard for more than 30 minutes Monday afternoon, before deputies turned the traffic signal to flashing yellow and directed traffic.
Meanwhile, in Pasco County, students began arriving at Gulf High School in New Port Richey at 7 a.m., as the sun peeked over the horizon.
Sophomore Robert Caruthers, 16, welcomed the start of the new year. He spent much of the summer hanging out, as finding a job proved impossible.
"I tried a whole bunch of places," he said. "You name it, I tried it."
High school seemed "terrifying" to freshmen Darien Davis and Molly Manier, both 14.
"We have no clue where the classes are," Molly said.
The girls spent the night together so they could arrive at the same time, knowing someone else right away.
"We were the big kids last year," Darien said. "Now we're back to the little ones. ... We've got to get through it."
It wasn't all perfect. Three Gulf Middle School sixth-graders, who share a bus with Gulf High School, got off at the high school and needed a ride to the right place.
Jennifer Robins drove up with daughter Amanda five minutes after the first period had begun, asking what time school begins. They'd woken up late.
Robins said she was happy for the school year to begin.
"It's not so much getting them out of the house as it is getting them where they need to be in life," she said.
Gulf Highlands Elementary School, Pasco's only F-rated elementary, kicked off the new year with a renewed sense of excitement.
"We have very high expectations for ourselves, our administration," third grade teacher Susan Jenkins said amid hugs from returning students. "I think the district is going to see very good things from us, and the parents are going to be happy."