WESLEY CHAPEL — Turn into the Watergrass subdivision off Curley Road and follow the road down around the curve (and off the map), and you'll find a school just waiting for homes to surround it.
Watergrass Elementary opens this month to relieve crowding at nearby Wesley Chapel Elementary, which has seen its enrollment climb to almost 200 percent of capacity over the past few years — even after other schools have opened to help cope with growth in the area.
Both schools expect to start the year with slightly more than 500 children enrolled. It's as if Wesley Chapel Elementary simply split in half.
Watergrass principal Scott Mitchell has no intention, though, of making his school an offshoot of its older neighbor to the west.
"We don't want to be Wesley Chapel II," Mitchell said.
The staff has spent considerable time putting together teams, setting forth values and establishing the beginnings of a culture that belongs solely to Watergrass Elementary, home of the Owls.
"Our motto is 'Soaring toward exemplary,' " assistant principal Gretchen Rudolph-Fladd said.
At the same time, the educators want to make sure they don't get too carried away.
"We want to make sure we focus on best practices and build upon those," Rudolph-Fladd said.
For the first year, especially, the school's secondary motto could be "Semper Gumby" — always flexible.
"One of the things we keep talking about is, we're not setting anything in stone," Mitchell said.
As things move ahead, Mitchell said, he needs to hear from staff members, parents and students on whether procedures and other efforts are working well. It's everyone's school, and all interested parties should have input in the way it operates.
Academically, the school plans to begin with the basics — writing, developing vocabulary, summarizing, posing essential questions and the like. The administrators plan to watch each teacher in action to make sure everyone can achieve the set goals before pressing ahead to new endeavors.
They have a year before they need to create a school improvement plan. But they intend to begin working on that too, so they don't fall behind the curve.
Mitchell has high expectations from the staff. One teacher could be considered "new," with just a year of experience, he said, while the others have loads of time in the classroom and stand ready to lead the school toward high levels of achievement.
Even the non-instructional staff is tops, he continued, with many of them having opened a new school before. So they're able to have things run smoothly in areas from the cafeteria to the plant management, he said.
"They know the ropes," Mitchell noted.
And because they almost all come from Wesley Chapel Elementary, they know the people they'll be serving too, making for an easier transition.
The administrators also hope that the school's positive recognition program, called the Outstanding Owls Club, will keep students on the right track as they get accustomed to their new digs.
The effort will focus on praising students who do the right thing, then rewarding them for their good behavior. Mitchell said he wants parents to get used to receiving calls from the principal — not because their children did something wrong but because they did something right.
"We want our staff to find kids doing good things," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.