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Back on the learning path // Double sessions, school uniforms are on horizon

Starting over triggers anticipation.

That can be good, as in hope, or bad, as in dread. But one thing is certain: This year, as always, area schools will undergo a variety of changes in administration and curriculum _ welcome or not.

High on the anxiety list is Gaither High School's move to double sessions.

Built to accommodate about 2,000 students, Gaither is expected to enroll 3,000 when it reopens Aug. 22. To accommodate these multitudes, Gaither is scheduling juniors, seniors and school team athletes from 7 a.m. to 12:33 p.m., and sophomores from 11:43 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.

"We don't want two schools in one building," said Amelia Lubrano, assistant principal for student affairs. "We're going to schedule assemblies and pep rallies during the overlapping period so that we're not polarizing our students."

Time will tell if the strategy works, as it will for other initiatives.

Among them:

Uniforms are being introduced to 20 Hillsborough public elementary schools and three middle schools. At Carrollwood's Cannella Elementary, the optional uniform consists of a white top and dark-blue shorts, pants or skirts. Incoming principal Lisa Yost said parents wanted the uniforms, which she believes will "put kids on an even level and instill a sense of pride in their school."

At Mort Elementary near the University of South Florida, administrators will try to build spirit in a school that serves a largely transient population. Darlene Choe, the school's new principal, plans to walk home with different pupils every day to become a familiar face in their neighborhoods.

"The first challenge is to have the children come into the school, feel welcome, feel part of the class and be part of the routine," Choe said. "That is also true for the parents. They need to feel like they belong here and can be welcome at any time."

Facing larger numbers of international pupils, Hunter's Green Elementary is setting up classes for bilingual pupils that emphasize smaller-group instruction and visual, hands-on activities. Said principal Betty Alfano: "We need to let children be aware they live in a global society and everyone's important in our school."

A stricter conduct code is in effect for Pasco County schools. Cellular phones are now banned, joining beepers and pagers, to cut down on distractions and discourage children from communicating with people who are considered undesirable. Pants must fit securely around the waist and watch chains are banned, because they can be used as weapons.

Falling short of using the term "body piercing," the annually updated code also prevents the wearing of jewelry that interferes with a child's health, safety and welfare.

"The code gives us a license to work with the parent who has a valid reason for wanting a student to bring a beeper to school," said Max Ramos, principal of Pine View Middle School in Land O'Lakes. "We've done that in the past and we'll continue to do that."

As for the dress code, he added: "I don't think the kid who wears his trousers baggy and low is going to have a problem. It's the kids who push things to the extreme that are going to have problems. If underwear is showing, I think you have a problem focusing on education."

More schools are signing on to "continuous progress" or multiage classrooms, instead of sorting kids according to the arbitrary measure of age. A first-grader, for example, may learn next to a third-grader in math, but next to a second-grader in reading.

"Our hope is to meet needs across the board, to move that very bright child on and to help the child who needs remediation in a certain skill," said Betty Lou Hutchison, assistant principal at Tampa Palms Elementary, which will pilot the program this year.

Carrollwood Elementary will expand its program, now in its third year. About 150 of the school's 800 pupils will be assigned to two houses: primary (grades one to three) and intermediate (grades four and five).

A major benefit of the program is that children stay with the same pupils and teachers over the years, which gives them a sense of family, said principal Valerie Orihuela.

"You don't have to spend time every school year acclimating yourself to a new situation," she said. "Teachers are familiar with students, their families and their learning styles and are ready from day one to take the children and move and grow."

To attract kids from the suburbs to inner-city schools, the Hillsborough district is opening three new magnet schools this year: Dowdell Middle School for environmental studies and technology; B. T. Washington Middle School for international studies; and the Philip Shore Elementary School for visual, performing and communication arts.

Hillsborough schools will continue implementing middle-school cluster plans. Chamberlain, for example, will add the ninth grade, which means the former Adams Junior High will now serve grades six through eight _ and pupils no longer will attend separate sixth- and seventh-grade centers.

"We want to minimize the number of schools children attend and the transitions they face," district administrator Orlan Briant said, noting that Buchanan, Ben Hill, Van Buren and Oak Grove junior high schools are slated to become middle schools in the 1997-98 school year.

"Just too many kids'

Hillsborough and Pasco school officials say their No. 1 challenge is handling growth. Projected enrollment is 145,211 students through grade 12 in Hillsborough, up from last fall's count of 139,784. By October, Pasco expects between 45,000 and 46,000 students, up from 43,000 a year before.

More children in the schools means more children learning in portable classrooms: 41,000 children in 1,638 portables in Hillsborough; the equivalent of five full schools in Pasco.

Chamberlain High is expected to open this year with 28.

"I'm not too sure that we did not make a mistake by not putting Chamberlain on double sessions," Briant said, noting that the projected enrollment is 2,600. "That's just too many kids on that campus at one time," he said, "but we'll make it work."

Construction is under way on high schools and middle schools in Citrus Park and New Tampa. In Pasco, an elementary school is being built on Morris Bridge Road. Another elementary school is planned for the Meadow Pointe subdivision off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

In Hillsborough, taxpayers are being asked for the second year in a row to approve a half-cent increase in the sales tax. The tax, which would also fund law enforcement infrastructure projects and a football stadium, could mean new high schools in Lutz and Bloomingdale over the next five years.

But still that leaves elementary schools overcrowded.

Schwarzkopf Elementary is preparing to welcome about 1,360 pupils; Tampa Palms Elementary about 1,150. Quail Hollow Elementary in Pasco, built for 600 pupils, is projecting an enrollment of about 1,150. And Hunter's Green Elementary, built with classroom space for about 860 pupils, will open this year with 24 portables, 1,500 pupils and 55 classes _ 11 each for kindergarten and first grade.

"I used to be able to visit every classroom every day," Alfano said, "but at this point that's impossible."

Without new money for construction, officials in both counties say elementary schools could be headed for double sessions.

"We hope to keep a Band-Aid approach going to keep Central Pasco schools off double sessions," Long said. "I think we can do it just by moving more portables out there, but after that if we don't have additional classrooms, we won't have any choice."

As always, though, the most immediate concern of parents is getting through the first day of school and the emotions it often triggers. Just as a school system undergoes transition, so too does a family when a child's new grade triggers an important milestone.

"The exciting part of it is, can you imagine what she'll be exposed to, what she'll come home with? I can't wait," said Kim Diaz, whose 5-year-old daughter, Kady, will enter Carrollwood Elementary as a kindergartener.

"I'm very happy in one way," Kim Diaz said, "but very sad in another. I don't know what to do with myself. I'm going to miss her so much."