"I love it!"
Kindergartener Quentin Humphrey had nothing but enthusiasm about attending the three-story Crews Lake Middle School, built for and filled with preteens double his height. "I wish I was a big kid and I could go on the top floor," Quentin, 5, said as he passed the stairwell on his way to lunch. "Right on top."
More than a few parents whose children attended nearby Shady Hills Elementary had trepidation about sending their babies to Crews Lake while their school undergoes two years of renovations. They voiced their concerns to Pasco County School District officials, loudly and often, as the administration marched toward creating its first K-8 campus.
"I was very nervous at first," said Jacqueline Mero, whose daughter Emma began first grade on Monday. "Last year she was in kindergarten, and all of a sudden she's thrust into middle school."
Less than a week into the new year, though, Mero had a different perspective.
"It hasn't been as bad as I thought," she said, while helping prepare classroom papers for teachers. "She's excited about this school. … She thinks everything is pretty and new."
Principal Tom Barker smiled at the unsolicited support.
He and his staff toiled through the summer to prepare, not only writing the procedures and tending to details of transforming their school, but also for the anticipated parent pushback.
Some picketed outside the school after the announcement of the change.
"I brought them drinks," Barker said. "I told them I was here to help them. I invited them in. We talked. I told them, this is the challenge we've been given. Let's work together to make it a success. They're actually some of my biggest allies now."
Mary Skaggs, whose great-grandson is in fifth grade, was among the picketers. Now she's a volunteer at Crews Lake.
"All I said was, we're going to try and make the best of it," Skaggs said. "It went very smooth the first day of school. That's what shocked me. I expected chaos."
The summer work paid off.
Every middle school classroom on the first floor, with the exception of programs with built-in equipment, relocated to the second and third floors to make space for the elementary classes.
Kindergarten got its own wing, with separate entrances. Passing periods were set up so that the mixing of students would not occur when the chances for jostling, intimidation and bad language are highest.
As a result, educators from the elementary and middle sides shared the view that the transition was painless.
"The building has been the change. That's it," said elementary assistant principal Tracy Bonnett, who moved over from Shady Hills Elementary.
"Being up here on the third floor, I don't see the little kids," seventh-grade math teacher Tammy Wilson said as middle school students hustled by. "I don't see much of a difference."
If the students do interact, it will come deliberately, for academic reasons.
For instance, middle school students taking a second period of intensive reading because they aren't at grade level will be assigned to read to kindergarteners.
"The older kids now have a reason for reading the lower-level books that's meaningful," Barker said.
The faculty is looking for ways to have fourth- and eighth-graders, who must take the FCAT writing exam, work together on writing lessons. And plans are in the works to have fifth-graders begin working with sixth-graders as spring break approaches, to ease the move to the middle grades.
Such connections are among the primary reasons some school districts prefer K-8 schools. Research has shown that the continuity offered in K-8 schools helps children perform better academically than those who switch schools at sixth grade.
Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said he hopes that Crews Lake will have such positive results, which could give impetus for more K-8 schools in the district. Already, the school is receiving dozens of choice requests from families, particularly in the Moon Lake and Mary Giella elementary zones whose children already attend middle school there.
So far, few requests have been denied.
Of course, not everything is perfect. Some class sizes are larger than desired. Dropoff and pickup need some smoothing, although they improved as the first week progressed.
And some parents still worry about traffic outside the school.
"Overall, I think it was better than we expected, but again I am reserved to say that it is in any way a good move," said Jessie Barnett, one of the parents who opposed the change at the start.
To the kids, though, those are parent issues. From their view, all was well.
"I like it," said eighth-grader Victoria Hossler, 13. "At first I thought it would be hard to switch over and adjust."
The older kids can't hang out in the downstairs common area anymore. It's an elementary zone. And they have to be role models for the younger students.
"After we got the hang of it, it's been a lot easier," Victoria said.
The younger set, meanwhile, welcomed their new digs.
"It's better than the old school," said second-grader Xavier Vazquez, 7. "Better playground, better class, better stuff."
And no fear of the big kids.
"I have a couple of older friends in this school," said fifth-grader Joseph Cloke, 10. "I think it's pretty fun to change schools."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or follow @jeffsolochek on Twitter. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.