WEEKI WACHEE — As construction workers buzzed about Hernando's newest school campus earlier this month, Dave Dannemiller stood in front of the gymnasium and admitted it: He's a little nervous.
Few principals get the chance to open a new school. Dannemiller, a 30-year veteran Hernando educator, was just weeks away from welcoming students to the new Winding Waters K-8 School.
"I can't wait to get started," he said. "I'm excited to see the building become a school."
On Aug. 22, construction workers will make way for more than 700 elementary school students. The books will have been placed on the shelves in the cavernous, sunshine-soaked media center, and nearly 60 teachers will be waiting in classrooms on the first and second floors.
More than three years in planning and construction, the $38 million school at 12240 Vespa Way is expected to ease overcrowding at Spring Hill elementary schools.
Only the K-5 portion will open next month. This year's fifth-graders will move up to the middle school classrooms on the third floor starting in 2012. The school's full capacity is 1,690 students.
Situated on 75 acres just north of Weeki Wachee High School off U.S. 19, Winding Waters is expected to be finished on time and under budget, said facilities director Bo Bavota.
Florida architecture firm Harvard Jolly designed the 285,000-square-foot building, and Skanksa USA Inc. started construction right after completing Weeki Wachee High. The new school's main feature, a soaring indoor mall just beyond the administrative offices, is reminiscent of two other Hernando K-8 schools, Explorer and Challenger in Spring Hill.
Each of the 43 classrooms boast interactive white boards and ceiling-mounted projectors. "The science labs make me want to be a science teacher," Dannemiller said.
About 30 percent of the media center's circulation — mostly nonfiction — will be in electronic form, and there will be 30 iPads on hand to access that material and for other applications, Dannemiller said. Students will not be allowed to take the devices off campus, however.
There is a video production room, a kiln in the art studio and a state-of-the-art playground.
There are tennis and basketball courts, a baseball/softball diamond and a lush practice field. The school's mascot, a green and yellow stinging insect, will stare at opponents from the center of the gymnasium floor. Students will pick the mascot's name. It will be a couple of years before sports are offered, Dannemiller said.
Teachers are coming from throughout the district, though more from Pine Grove and Westside elementary schools because Winding Waters is pulling most of its students from those two campuses.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt bypassed three finalists who applied for the job to ask Dannemiller, who has more than a decade of experience as a principal in Hernando County, if he was interested. He first served in the top spot at Pine Grove, then moved to Powell Middle in 2008.
Because of his lengthy history in Hernando, Dannemiller is familiar with many of the teachers who will be working at Winding Waters.
"There are some awesome people on staff, let me tell you," he said.
The school's EdLine online portal is up and running. To find it, go to hernandoschools.org and look for the "School Sites/Edline" drop-down menu near the top left corner of the page.
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Winding Waters will be one of the biggest stories of the 2011-12 school year in Hernando County, but there are many noteworthy items that families should keep in mind as the first day of classes looms.
Courtesy busing ends
More than 2,400 students will have to find a new way to get to school this year. In an effort to close a roughly $11 million budget gap, the School Board voted earlier this month to eliminate bus service for students who live within 2 miles of school.
The district plans to place crossing guards at 16 of the county's busiest intersections. Parents who consider the walk or bike ride to school too dangerous for their children can ask for a hardship exception so kids can still ride the bus. That application process was still being finalized this month, but will likely be handled through the student services department, Blavatt said.
Parents should also check with their child's school to find out if the school is helping bring together families for carpooling opportunities. Some schools are also organizing so-called walking school buses so families can make the trip together in the safety of a group.
Athletics, activity fees
A new pay-to-play era is here. Families now must pay for their students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
Middle school students must pay $35 for their first sport and $20 for the second, with a cap of $55 for students who play additional sports. High school students will pay $45 for the first sport and $25 for the second, with a cap of $70.
There also will be family rates for siblings at the same school of $80 for middle-school students and $100 at high schools.
A $15 general activity fee will cover involvement in extracurricular activities such as clubs.
Students whose families submit proof of financial hardship will have some options. Among them: Paying over the course of a year, paying through volunteer service hours or getting assistance from a school-based group such as a school advisory committee.
Parents will pay the fees at the schools, but the process is still being firmed up.
New start times for two schools
Last year, the district overhauled start times to save transportation dollars. This year, just two schools will get slight tweaks to accommodate the opening of Winding Waters.
The first bell at West Hernando Middle School will ring 10 minutes later, at 9:15. The dismissal time of 4:05 p.m. remains unchanged.
The first bell at Central High will sound 15 minutes earlier, at 7:30 a.m. The dismissal bell will be moved up by the same amount, to 2:27 p.m.
STAR Center is now Endeavor Academy
The former STAR Center has a new name, a new principal and a broader focus.
The Brooksville alternative school, now called Endeavor Academy, will still serve students with behavioral issues. But until now, the main strategy was to place students in smaller classes. The new approach is to cater to each student's needs, using computer software and one-on-one or small group instruction as part of an individualized education plan.
Rob Dill, formerly an assistant principal at Challenger who oversaw the Quest Academy for the Gifted, will serve as Endeavor's principal. Former STAR principal Debra Harris, who did double duty last year by helping oversee the launch of the district's new eSchool franchise, has been tapped to serve as the full-time eSchool administrator.
eSchool gains steam
Official hope to build on the eSchool momentum in its second year.
Hernando has offered Florida Virtual School classes for more than a decade, but the eSchool franchise, administered through FVS, is considered the district's 24th school, complete with its own diploma.
About 1,200 students took at least one eSchool course last year, with seven students taking enough online courses to graduate with an eSchool diploma.
To find out more about the franchise, go to hernandoschools.org and look for the eSchool link in the center of the page.
It's not quite the shake-up of years past, but some parents and students will be meeting new principals and assistant principals come the first day of school.
• Debi Vermette, principal at Moton Elementary in Brooksville last year, takes over for Betty Harper at Deltona Elementary in Spring Hill. Harper is now assistant principal at West Hernando Middle, west of Brooksville.
• Mark Griffith, the former assistant principal at Moton, takes the top spot there.
• Jamie Young is now principal at Powell, taking the place of Dave Dannemiller, who is principal at the new Winding Waters K-8.
• Eastside and Chocachatti elementary schools will go without assistant principals this year to save money and preserve classroom teaching positions.
No driver education
Driver education is another budget-cutting casualty.
The class will no longer be offered for credit at each of the high schools. District officials have talked about offering the course after school for a fee, but no plan has been approved.
Upperclassmen at Weeki Wachee High
The district's newest high school will now have upperclassmen and the necessary features that come with that, such as more Advanced Placement courses and a bevy of varsity sports.
Weeki Wachee High opened last fall with freshmen and sophomores who would filter into the upper grades. Now the 11th-grade wing of the school will be bustling with the activity of about 240 juniors, said principal Dennis McGeehan. The total enrollment is projected to be 925.
The school will offer AP courses in English and math, and students can take advantage of a dual enrollment program with Pasco-Hernando Community College.
The Weeki Wachee Hornets will play varsity sports in basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and volleyball. Varsity football will start next year, McGeehan said.
"It's all part of high school," McGeehan said. "It's great to be able to build those things."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.