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Back to the books in Hillsborough

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

School officials say there were about 5,200 more students than on the first day a year ago.

Hillsborough school officials reported a smooth first day Thursday as tens of thousands of students traveled by foot, car, bicycle and bus to get back to class.

So many students, in fact, that school officials expressed some concern. The official count showed there were 5,230 more students in class Thursday than on the first day of school last year.

"If we increase from the first day to the 20th day as much as we did last year, we'll be looking at an official kindergarten through Grade 12 enrollment of 157,000 children, which is 2,000 over our projections," said Mark Hart, the spokesman for Hillsborough County schools. "We're going to have to watch this closely."

That growth was evident at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, where principal Joe Perez welcomed students as they stepped off a fleet of 30 buses.

The seventh- and eighth-graders headed to the main building, but the sixth-graders went to the fields, where 16 portables stood. The school opened last year with no portables and closed with four.

Perez said he expects about 1,680 students at Rodgers, 700 more than the school was built to accommodate.

"It's challenging," he said. "It's a daily issue for us, providing enough space."

But crowded classrooms were far from the minds of most parents, students and educators Thursday, who simply wanted to start the new year without a hitch.

And despite bus delays, a couple of minor accidents and heavy rain in some parts of town, the day did go smoothly.

For Manuel Duran, the first day involved opening DeSoto Elementary as the school's new principal. In all, 21 Hillsborough schools opened with new principals, and new principals for Durant High School, Roland Park Middle School and Oak Grove and Edison elementary schools will be named next week.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Duran, who taught at DeSoto 20 years ago. He returned to a school graded a D by the state, but which he said could have been a B if only a few more students had scored higher in fourth-grade reading last year. And if a few less students had been absent 20 days or more.

Many students and parents were also preparing for new challenges.

"I'm getting ready for the hustle and bustle," said parent Carol Tedder of Brandon, whose children attend Rodgers and Riverview High School.

Her children are involved in soccer and the marching band, "and that means about two to three nights a week of picking up and shuffling around and Friday nights and Saturdays too," she said.

Tori Ware is a member of the school safety patrol at Maniscalco Elementary School in Lutz. She was excited to be in the school's oldest grade.

"As a fifth-grader," she said, "you're not young anymore."

_ Times staff writers Katherine Gazella and Caroline Ranes contributed to this report.