The first day of school usually means plenty of novelty for students and their families. • New backpacks, notebooks ready for filling, maybe some snazzy new shoes. • A new grade level, and in many cases, a different school. • A fresh start. • But there are lots of changes beyond the typical in Hernando County this year. • From adjusted bell schedules to the launch of an online school and the opening of a massive brick-and-mortar high school, here is a primer on what's new for the 2010-11 school year as students prepare to return on Aug. 23:
Bell Schedules Overhauled: The change that likely will have the most widespread effect on families is a new bell schedule.
Faced with fears of a big budget deficit, the School Board in June approved the new schedule that sets start times according to a school's geographic location. That allowed the district to double up bus routes, cutting 15 buses for an estimated savings of $750,000.
Under the new schedule, five elementary or K-8 schools will start 40 to 55 minutes earlier: Deltona, Explorer, Spring Hill, Suncoast and Westside.
One K-8 and six elementary schools will start up to 30 minutes later: Floyd, Brooksville, Chocachatti, Eastside, Moton and Pine Grove.
Challenger K-8 school and Parrott, Fox Chapel and Powell middle school will see slight changes to start times, ranging from five minutes earlier to 25 minutes later. West Hernando will see the biggest change, starting 85 minutes later.
Central and Springstead high school will start a few minutes earlier. The bell schedules at Hernando and Nature Cost Technical high will not change. The first bell at the new Weeki Wachee High will ring at 9:15 a.m.
New High School Eases Attendance Pressure: The new Weeki Wachee High School, the $41 million home of the Green Hornets, also brings new attendance boundaries.
The school, located on U.S. 19 about 4 miles north of State Road 50, is chock full of environmentally friendly features and is on schedule and under budget, said district facilities director Bo Bavota.
With the opening of the new school, the district shifted attendance boundaries, taking the pressure off overcrowded Central and Springstead high schools. Weeki Wachee will start with about 600 freshmen and sophomores who will fill up the upper-class ranks in the next two years.
Dennis McGeehan, former principal at Central, will serve as the new school's first leader.
New construction means more space, fewer portables at Suncoast, Deltona elementary schools: Students at two overcrowded elementary schools will find brand-new buildings where portable classrooms once sat.
Construction is on schedule and on budget at Suncoast and Deltona elementary schools, said Bovota, the district facilities director.
Suncoast, on County Line Road just east of Mariner Boulevard, is getting a two-story building featuring 14 classrooms, an art lab and a music room. In addition, the nearly $6.5 million project will include a renovation and expansion of the existing cafeteria.
Deltona also gets a two-story building, with 12 classrooms and a media center. As part of the district's $6.8 million investment, the existing media center and several classrooms and administrative areas have been renovated.
The school on Deltona Boulevard had about 200 students in 17 portables last year. Suncoast had about 85 students in portables and crammed about 100 more into makeshift classrooms during construction.
Few, if any, portables are expected to remain on each school's campus, Bavota said.
New faces in principal'S offices: Students and parents at several schools will be greeted by new administrators this year. Three schools had new principals as of last week:
• Lisa Braithwaite, formerly the assistant principal at Suncoast Elementary, takes the top spot there after the retirement of Jean Ferris.
• Nancy Kesselring, who started her career as a teacher at Westside Elementary and most recently served as an assistant principal in Pasco County, takes over at Westside for Dominick Ferello, who requested a reassignment in the wake of complaints about his management style. Ferello is now an assistant principal at Eastside Elementary.
• Barbara Kidder takes over at Fox Chapel Middle School for the retiring Tizzy Schoelles. Kidder started with the district in 1994 and most recently served as assistant principal at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill.
iPods banned, cell phones can be searched: Pull out those earbuds and leave the iPods at home.
That directive is one of the most notable in a host of changes to the district's student code of conduct that take effect this year.
The ubiquitous Apple iPod has been added to the list of prohibited electronic devices, joining personal digital assistants, MP3 players, pagers and other e-mail and messaging devices other than cell phones.
The code also now explicitly states that school officials have a right to search cell phones and other electronic devices if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a search would reveal a rule violation, such as cheating on a test or sending obscene text messages or photos.
What is known as "sexting" — the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos via cell phones — had already been added as a punishable offense. But the code now clearly states that school officials will call police if an image sent by cell phone or other device contains nude images of children or adults.
Prevention classes will be required in some cases — such as sexual harassment or bullying — where disciplinary action must be taken.
And the code now says that seniors found guilty of "vandalism" or "pranks" that result in out-of-school suspension within the last 30 days of the school year may be barred from graduation ceremonies, a decision that can be left to the school administrator.
Gifted center moves to Challenger K-8: The Quest Gifted Center opens in its new home this year: Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics on Elgin Boulevard in Spring Hill.
The center opened in 2008 in Explorer K-8, a neighborhood school a few miles west of Challenger. After an often passionate debate, the School Board voted in December to move the center to alleviate overcrowding at Explorer.
Officials estimate Quest's enrollment to be about 375 this year.
Rob Dill, a veteran administrator who most recently served as a high school principal in Tennessee, has been tapped to lead the center. Dill is officially an assistant principal at Challenger and will answer to principal Sue Stoops, but the Quest center will operate as a so-called school within a school.
New e-School comes online: Hernando students have been taking online classes through the Florida Virtual School program for years, and the program has grown increasingly popular.
Now the district has its own virtual school program for middle school and high school students.
The program is officially a franchise of the Florida Virtual School, and the district leases the courses. But now local teachers are the instructors and will be available for face-to-face meetings with students. Also, the district gets to keep some per-student state funding for the program, projected to be some $100,000 this year and more than $700,000 after five years.
The offered courses range from English to Web design.
Courses take 16 to 18 weeks per half credit to complete, at a rate of roughly three to five study hours per week. Students must be done with classes by the last day of the regular school calendar.
Motivated students who spend more time per day working on assignments will finish faster, and it's possible to start a half-credit course by mid February and finish by the end of the year, according to the district's eSchool Web page. Registration opened last week, and no enrollments will be accepted after the specified mid-February date.
For more information, look for the eSchool link in the center of the district's home page at hernandoschools.org.
First full year for superintendent: He started in April, so Aug. 23 marks the first time superintendent Bryan Blavatt will open a school year.
Blavatt, who last served in the top spot in a Kentucky school district, is garnering high praise from School Board members for his depth of knowledge, his measured approach in making changes and his accessibility.
New faces for the School Board?: The day after the kids show up for classes, voters will show up to the polls for the 2010 primary election. There are three School Board races on the ballot, and all three incumbents — Dianne Bonfield, Sandra Nicholson and John Sweeney — have drawn challengers.
Nicholson's race has three candidates and may go to a run-off on Nov. 2. The winners of all three races take office on Nov. 16, nine days before students leave for Thanksgiving break.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]