After months of anticipation, Pasco County's two newest schools made their debuts Monday to largely rave reviews.
Both Cypress Creek Middle-High School in Wesley Chapel and Bexley Elementary School in Land O'Lakes rose to ease crowding at nearby schools, where subdivision growth pushed the student populations beyond capacity.
Even with the new schools' arrival, other campuses continued to grow, with overall district enrollment expected to increase by 1,600 children — largely along the State Road 54 corridor.
Students, parents and staffers at both Cypress Creek and Bexley cheered their high-tech, pristinely clean new digs, and welcomed the opportunity to create a school culture.
"We're going to get our pictures on the wall as the first graduating class. It's cool," Cypress Creek junior Jack Ward said after posing for a photo in the entrance.
His mom, Mollyana Ward, said she had no qualms about having her youngest son transfer from Wiregrass Ranch High to Cypress Creek. Some families fought the move as the School Board drew new attendance zones to accommodate the new site on Old Pasco Road.
"All of our kids go through school, and they all will come out the way they're supposed to come out," she said, noting that her oldest son graduated from Wesley Chapel High, her middle son from Wiregrass Ranch. "I don't worry about it. It's a good addition to the community."
The Wards arrived at Cypress Creek after the sun had risen, and after many who showed up in the dark to get an early run at obtaining an updated course schedule and figuring out which was Building 4 — or 2, or 5.
Junior Bryce Navarro, 16, was the first student to get to school, ready to volunteer guiding others to the proper locations.
"I'm pretty excited to be here," said Bryce, still sleepy-eyed but otherwise raring to go.
He said he considered applying for school choice back to Wesley Chapel High, where many of his friends remained. But as his mom, Parent-Teacher-Student Association president Johanna Navarro, said, "He has the opportunity to leave a legacy here."
Principal Carin Hetzler-Nettles and her staff were keenly aware of such high expectations as they greeted everyone on the humid morning. She said her main objective was to create a community where students couldn't tell their parents which teacher they liked the best, because they liked them all so much.
"It's a lot of work. It takes a village, that's for sure," she said. "The kids have to have a great first day."
Not to be lost in the shuffle were the middle-schoolers, some of whom looked tiny in the courtyard beside the upperclassmen. But it wasn't meant to be a problem. (You could hear some of the older girls cooing, "Oh, look at the cute sixth-graders.")
Sixth-grader Sanaia Johnson, 11, said she had no concerns being on a bigger campus, with bigger kids all around.
"I'm okay with it," she said, noting the middle school will be in different buildings from the high school.
"They won't be messed with," said freshman Peyton Petry, 14.
The school had only minor issues on its first run — the class bell didn't ring in the courtyard and some classrooms couldn't hear the morning announcements. But the buses ran on time, and the kids and adults were largely enthusiastic. (Only one was seen crying in a stairwell.)
"Once we put kids' success as our foremost foundation and building block, everything else will take care of itself," said Tico Hernandez, the school's graduation enhancement coach.
Bexley Elementary had a similar positive vibe on its first day, which began two hours later.
Seven-year-old Natalie Groen was more than eager to get to her second-grade classroom.
"When are they going to let us in?" she asked her mom, Sarah Kilmartin, as students and their families lined up early at the front entrance.
For her part, Kilmartin was more than happy to have some extra time.
"I'm a little nervous. She's my one and only," she said as parents around her snapped photos of their kids with cellphones. "We've been looking around, finding people we know, which makes it a little easier."
At 9:25 a.m., they finally opened the school gate.
"It's good; it's really good," superintendent Kurt Browning said as he greeted students. "There's an energy leading up to today that I've not experienced before — with the new schools, of course, but also with the improvement of school grades overall."
"I'm so excited after working on this project for five or six months," principal Viki Wolin said. "And finally working with all these families, well, it just gives me goose bumps."
Wolin was expecting 703 students on the first day, but the school has seats for 900. There's also open space on campus to hold another building and 10 portable classrooms.
Kindergarten teacher Shannon Grove said she was especially excited with the interconnectedness of the classrooms, meant to foster collaboration among teachers in the kindergarten pod.
"We're able to draw on each other's strengths," Grove said, adding that new technology would be useful to help keep students engaged.
On the agenda for the first day: an assortment of team-building and ice-breaker activities, along with some lessons on basic procedures, such as raising your hand before speaking.
Some, like Shoshana Bonilla, 5, took right to it, unruffled by the activity going on around her. Others, like Claire Ellinger, 5, were more apprehensive and shed a few tears.
"It's okay, baby," said her mom, Megan Ellinger, her own eyes welling up as she rubbed her daughter's back.
Lucky for them, there were some familiar faces from the neighborhood — primarily fourth-graders Reese VanBrocklin and Kinley Walek — who came to offer some support.
"We're trying to make Claire feel better," Kinley said.
"They're super excited about Bexley and doubly excited about a new school," said Candiss Walek, who came to drop off her son, kindergartener Jace Walek, before finding Kinley's classroom. "It's an absolutely amazing school. The staff and faculty are amazing and organized, which is really amazing because the first day of school can be traumatic."