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School crowding remains a problem in Pasco

WESLEY CHAPEL — Crowding is nothing new for Wesley Chapel Elementary School.

The school, built for just 618 students, has seen its enrollment near 1,500 several times.

The Pasco County district opened two new elementary schools last August to move more than 500 children away and bring Wesley Chapel down to more manageable numbers. That was but the most recent effort to help.

Still, the kids just keep coming.

The latest projections by district planners show that just one year after Double Branch and New River elementary schools pulled Wesley Chapel's average daily attendance down closer to 1,000 students, the school will return to 200 percent capacity by the first day of classes. And it's not just that school — it's the area.

Sand Pine Elementary in the Meadow Pointe subdivision, which also got some enrollment relief with the opening of New River, is headed back past 150 percent of its capacity again. Nearby Long Middle also is seeing its enrollment projections rise to unprecedented levels, while Weightman Middle is expected to see its population rise at a slower pace.

"Be reminded, we are one of the few counties in the state that continues to grow in students," student services director Lizette Alexander observed.

And much of that growth is concentrated in the State Road 54 corridor from Trinity in the west to Wesley Chapel in the east.

Sanders and Oakstead elementary schools in Land O'Lakes also are expecting to see their enrollment skyrocket — 2-year-old Oakstead is projected to have nearly 300 more children attend, pushing it to about 170 percent of capacity.

"Certainly, we have our hot spots that we are looking to relieve," planning director Chris Williams said.

And over time, he added, the district has plans to ease crowding in those areas.

A new elementary school in the Watergrass subdivision, for instance, is aimed at helping out Wesley Chapel Elementary yet again next fall. The district has an elementary site selected in the Bexley Ranch subdivision off State Road 54 to ease the strain on Oakstead, with another site in negotiations in Odessa.

There's a new elementary school planned to open in 2009 in the Connerton subdivision, which should ease crowding for Sanders. And high schools are in the planning stages to deal with capacity issues at Ridgewood, Mitchell and Zephyrhills high schools.

Williams is quick to point out that Pasco's growth — expected to be just over 1,300 students as the state counts them for funding — has slowed significantly from the nearly 3,500 new students that came in about four years ago.

And that, he said, gives the district a generally positive outlook in its battle against crowding.

Pasco will have 21 elementary schools closed to choice transfers this coming year, down from 26. Eight middle schools will accept choice transfers, up from seven, as will four high schools, up from two.

The district allows children to attend schools other than the ones that they're assigned to if the school's enrollment is below 105 percent capacity. Last year, more than 8,000 students used school choice. This year, more seats are available.

"The overall perspective is we're chipping away at it and making progress," Williams said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

School crowding remains a problem in Pasco 07/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:43pm]
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