Ask Chelsea Hatcher about her four years at Hudson High, and prepare for an emotional litany of superlatives. "I've had an amazing experience," effuses Hatcher, a cheerleader and student newspaper sports editor whose family has attended Hudson High for generations. "Look around our school. There are so many different types of people. … But everyone is friends."
The teachers are great, too, she adds, to the nods of nearby classmates.
"Our teachers are able to remember each student for what they're good at and what they need help with, and they help them through the class personally," says senior Zack Wynn, the school's starting quarterback, who carries a 3.97 grade-point average while taking Advanced Placement classes.
And don't forget the clubs and other ways to get involved, chimes in senior Keisha James, the yearbook editor and student government vice president who's been offered a full scholarship to Florida State University.
"There's something for everyone," James says.
It has award-winning art classes, a growing number of AP courses, a steadily declining dropout rate and academic ratings that put it on par with several of its nearby rivals.
Yet Hudson finds itself constantly fighting perceptions that it's Pasco County's worst high school, a place some parents don't want to send their kids.
"It's because they don't know," said Sam Poston-Norris, the school's 2009-10 outstanding senior. "Every school has its nickname, but this one hurts the most. We are definitely not Scudson. … We are Hudson."
The latest attack on Hudson's quality came amid the school district's plans to redraw attendance zones for River Ridge, Hudson and Ridgewood high schools while assigning students to Fivay High, which opens in the fall.
Parents in the Suncoast Lakes subdivision decried a proposal, approved this past week, to move their children from River Ridge to Hudson. They offered several reasons for their opposition, but one that stood out was their disdain for Hudson, which they called a "lesser-performing school."
Speaking to the School Board, Suncoast Lakes residents denied they were casting the school in a bad light. But once the meeting ended, with their children newly assigned to Hudson, the parents renewed the negativity, vowing to use school choice to send their kids elsewhere.
"The district only is going to see a huge carpool line to River Ridge," one mom stated.
"It's not a very good school," a dad chimed in. "It's just not."
Hudson boasts edge
By several objective measures, though, Hudson compares favorably to the other schools that the parents held in higher regard.
• Hudson's dropout rate in 2007-08 was 0.97 percent, better than all but two of the county's other high schools.
• Hudson's graduation rate in 2007-08 was 81.6 percent, up from 70.4 percent a year earlier and solidly in the middle of the district's 11 high schools.
• Hudson earned 448 points in the state's 2009 grading system, enough points for a C, but received a D because it fell short in reading gains among its lowest performing students. It received more points than Ridgewood, River Ridge and Wesley Chapel.
The school also had lower levels of crime and violence in the major categories, such as fighting and weapons possession, than nearby west Pasco high schools in the most recent state reports.
Students interviewed said they feel safe and welcome at Hudson, with its family atmosphere and strong school spirit.
That spirit was evident on homecoming weekend, where it was easier to find the handful of kids not wearing school colors than to count those who were decked out in red and gold, often from head to toe, including body paint.
Even teachers got into the act. Sixteen of the school's educators attended Hudson High, said principal Dave LaRoche, himself a Hudson alum.
So long as teaching didn't suffer, he said, it didn't matter how crazy they dressed for the special day.
LaRoche apologized to superintendent Heather Fiorentino and board member Starkey for the hoopla as they toured the school that Nov. 13 morning. But the district leaders said they were impressed by the enthusiasm and wished all schools had the same level of excitement.
"It's not one of our new fancy schools," Starkey said. "What it does have that I haven't seen at any other high school is the sense of camaraderie that the students and teachers have … The kids at Hudson seem to move between the boundaries of groups."
Senior class sponsor Frederick Casey said he heard the rumors about Hudson High before he joined the staff, and he admitted they gave him pause.
"I came and realized it was not that way at all," Casey said. "We've got some great kids here, and some excellent programs. … The people in the community, we hope they're able to see that many students go on to achieve great things."
Problems to tackle
Of course, not everything at Hudson High is perfect.
• It had the district's lowest average SAT score for 2008-09, below state and national averages.
• It had the fewest students taking Advanced Placement exams, and the fewest AP courses offered, among all Pasco County high schools in 2008-09.
• Its Class of 2009 had the third-fewest scholarship offers, and the third-lowest total, of the county's graduating classes.
• Chronic absenteeism (more than 21 days missed) was at 14 percent in 2008, worse than all but three of the county's other high schools.
The school has limited technology capabilities, lacks some equipment that newer schools have and struggles with a design that officials consider inefficient.
LaRoche said plans are under way to tackle each of the problems to the extent possible.
Hudson is expanding its Advanced Placement offerings this year and next, even adding freshman-level courses. Already it has more than quintupled the number of students taking AP courses.
The district's information technology department is examining the best ways to amplify the school's wireless abilities, including a move to newer machines.
The district curriculum and instruction department, meanwhile, continues to bring new initiatives such as a learning lab to Hudson in order to help students succeed before they end up as dropout statistics.
If there's a big concern for the school, it's that the new attendance zones remove some of the communities that have sent their kids to Hudson the longest. That could change Hudson's familial feel, as teens from different neighborhoods — ones with ties to other schools — begin filling the hallways.
Even LaRoche might not remain. He's the only sitting principal to have applied to run Fivay High, making him a leading candidate for the post.
Despite all that, the kids who attend Hudson High now hold firm to the belief that their school is the best. Don't agree?
"Just have them come in here for a day," said Poston-Norris, who also has been class president for three years.
"Don't go by the rumors," added quarterback Wynn.
Concluded cheerleader Hatcher, "I don't see why they wouldn't want to come to a school like this."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.