LUTZ — A popular charter school with an emphasis on the environment is expanding to include a high school.
Learning Gate Community School, which serves about 570 kindergarteners through eighth-graders, is in the process of purchasing land to build a junior and senior high school, said principal Patti Girard.
For a school with a constant wait list, the news of growth is welcome.
"We are very happy about the high school," said Tracy Pash, who has a son in the eighth grade at Learning Gate. A lot of parents have been requesting it, she said.
With about 400 children currently on the wait list for the elementary and middle school, the new school will provide space the school badly needs, Girard said. Seventh- and eighth-graders will move from the current campus to the new one.
The new land is located near the school's current 30-acre site on Hanna Road and is about the same size, Girard said. She wouldn't release details because the purchase is still pending.
The charter school is currently authorized to operate an elementary and middle school but is in the process of seeking approval for a high school from the school district, Girard said.
If approved, ninth-graders would start next year, she said.
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An A-rated school for the past eight years, Learning Gate focuses on teaching students about nature, sustainability and the environment through hands-on learning.
As a charter school, Learning Gate must adhere to state guidelines to receive funding but has flexibility in the way it teaches the material.
Though every student must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the school puts little focus on it in the classroom.
"FCAT is a dirty word around here," said assistant principal Sean Craven.
Instead of days filled with lectures and notes, students are engaged, Girard said.
"Students retain knowledge better when they've worked things out themselves," she said.
Using project-based learning, seventh- and eighth-graders spend half the day in class and the other half creating individual and group projects based on what they've learned.
"They are learning for a purpose," said special education teacher Jen Craven, who is the wife of Sean Craven.
Students have designed and built a doll house, researched and presented information on pediatric brain tumors, and produced and created a video about project-based learning.
The project, which is chosen by the student with teacher guidance, is done start to finish in the classroom.
"The kids are truly doing their own projects this way," Jen Craven said.
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The high school will continue with the same style of learning but take it up a notch, Sean Craven said.
Even construction, which is expected to take two years, will be a learning opportunity.
"We want our children totally immersed," Girard said.
Until the new school is finished, students will attend class in a leased 28,000-square-foot office space near Bearss and North Florida avenues.
Only seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders will be taught there during the first year. The rest of the upper grades will be added a year at a time.
Like the current school, sustainability will be the focus, Girard said, but students will be expected to put it into action.
The school plans to partner with area businesses, such as a renewable energy park planned for Turkey Creek. Through internships and class projects, students would be able to gain work experience and a firsthand perspective.
"Students are going to have several years to practice what they think they really want to do," Girard said. "Kids will be able to touch or see a solar panel, use hydroponics."
The school also will place an emphasis on foreign languages and the use of technology.
Susan Koehler-Machlus of Trinity was excited to hear the news. She has two sons enrolled in the school, in seventh and eighth grade.
"The teaching methods are out of the box and open-ended," she said. "It keeps kids interested."
But Koehler-Machlus said she has not yet decided whether to enroll her son in the high school because of the distance she must drive to get him to school.
"I think the drive shows a big commitment that says a lot about the school," she said. She just wasn't sure if she could continue it for another four years.
Pash, the mother of an eighth-grader at Learning Gate, plans to enroll her son in the high school as soon as possible.
"My son is thriving here," she said. "If he has an idea on a project, he can take it and go as far as he can with it."
Pash of Land O'Lakes said she wishes the expansion had come earlier so her daughter, who is now a junior, could have continued at Learning Gate.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.