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Winthrop Charter School parents roll with challenges of busy site

RIVERVIEW — Amid beer delivery trucks and construction projects, busy intersections and winding interior roads, 800 children in bright red polo shirts need to go home from school.

With the opening of Winthrop Charter School last month, heavy traffic flooded around Winthrop Town Centre as families shuttled students to and from the new brick elementary school. The charter school, a free public school option operated by a private company, does not have busing options and requires its families to drop off and pick up children.

And it has the highest enrollment of any first-year charter school that has opened in Hillsborough County, said Jenna Hodgens, the school district's charter supervisor.

The first two days of school brought two-hour waits at pickup time for some parents and prompted law enforcement to send a helicopter to scout stand-still car lines on Providence Road and Bloomingdale Avenue.

"The first day was incredible," said Juan Marcial, a 60-year-old from Clair-Mel who picks up two grandchildren from Winthrop Charter. "Traffic is crazy."

The school had set up an entryway to skirt nearby Symmes Elementary and staggered dismissal times of its kindergarten through sixth-grade classes, principal Terry Johnson said. But cars clogged the roads as parents arrived before their scheduled pickup window, and families reported some confusion with the plastic name placards required to collect their children.

"Coming out of the gate, you have your challenges that you have to face," Johnson said.

But with help from the Sheriff's Office, the school reworked the pickup plan to whittle the afternoon frenzy to 30 to 45 minutes, he said.

Within the shopping plaza, which includes a Publix, a Starbucks and a Green Iguana restaurant, cars now cruise in an hour before the 2:30 to 3 p.m. dismissal. Many of them line the small roads of the connecting parking lots or fill spots near other businesses — which Winthrop developer John Sullivan says he welcomes.

On a recent afternoon, cars honk at pedestrians. Cars pull out of spaces. Cars back into spaces. Cars carve out three-point turns in the middle of the road. A truck drives over a curb to park on an empty grassy lot.

"This could be a lot better," said Tina Christie, 28, of Riverview, who has a child in third grade at the school. "Anything could happen."

The streets closer to the school are blocked off, and school staffers direct traffic and supervise students. There are sidewalks and crosswalks around school property. Stop signs abound, but there are no posted speed limits.

Johnson, the principal, and Sullivan, the center's developer, both said they had no safety concerns.

Riverview mother of two Jackie MacLean, 49, praised school administrators for quick improvements to the hectic dismissal.

"I just hope it gets better," she said. "And I think it will."

The number of cars streaming in may still grow: Sullivan said plans to expand Winthrop Charter may call for another structure near the complex, in addition to 750 housing units slated to be built in the development area.

Increased traffic may benefit businesses, he said, noting the flux of red-shirted children inside Publix and busier mornings at Starbucks.

Winthrop Charter dad Brian Valyko, ambled over to the school on a recent afternoon from a distant parking spot.

"It's nuts," he said calmly. "What can you do?"

The growing pains are worth the charter-school experience, he said. As long as his two daughters continue to love the school, Valyko, 35, doesn't mind holding their hands to walk back to the car.

"But if six months from now, it's still chaotic, I'd definitely reconsider keeping them here."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Winthrop Charter School parents roll with challenges of busy site 09/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 1:02pm]
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