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Schools' growth exceeds forecasts

So far, a likely 4 percent rise hasn't swamped school officials, but a shortage of portable classrooms poses a problem.

The signs are clearly visible.

A drama class at Powell Middle School is packed with 34 students.

Before and after school in the student pickup line at Suncoast Elementary, the line of cars is longer than ever.

At Pine Grove Elementary, new portable classrooms have been brought in and, until more become available, a special education class still must meet in the library for lack of another space.

They are the signs of growth, something with which Hernando County is familiar. But there is evidence that the county's public school enrollment is growing faster than school officials might have thought.

As of Thursday, the head count stood at 16,804. It may not top out for another two months. District officials thought the student population would grow about 2 percent this year. It appears now that it will be closer to 4 percent.

"It caught us by surprise," said Suncoast principal Tizzy Schoelles.

Suncoast's enrollment is hovering near a school-record 800 students, about 55 more than expected. Since school began four weeks ago, three teaching slots have been added, and the school has had to revamp its entire art, music, physical education and technology rotation to adjust.

And Schoelles finds herself in the parking lot on most weekday mornings, hustling kids out of their family cars so everyone can get dropped off by 9 a.m., when classes start.

Springstead High School, still the county's biggest school, is long accustomed to having 1,700 students. But now Central High School has joined the 1,700 club, too. Even Hernando High has 1,410 students _ 57 more than it expected.

All four middle schools have more than 1,000 students. Powell Middle School has enrolled 65 more students than expected, creating some bigger-than-expected classes.

"It's always nice when you have 25 to a class," said principal Cy Wingrove. "But I haven't reached panic level yet."

So far, the schools have been able to cope with the pressure. But it hasn't been easy.

Extra money was put into the budget for 10 growth-related teaching positions. And the extra students are spread around evenly enough so one school isn't taxed to an extreme.

But the teacher shortage persists, with more than a dozen classroom jobs still unfilled. Long-term substitutes, who have college degrees, have filled the gaps. Most often, however, they are teaching subjects for which they do not have training.

Schools are accustomed to the problem. What threw school officials a curve this year was a portable classroom crunch that remains unsolved. When a key supplier of the manufactured buildings went belly-up, district officials had to scrounge all over Central Florida for replacements.

Today, only six of the 18 new portable classrooms that were needed for growth are in use. Some have been delivered, but not yet hooked up. Some will not arrive until Halloween. The situation has forced teachers to hold class in some unorthodox places.

Two driver education teachers are holding their classroom discussions in the school auditorium. Other teachers float like nomads without a classroom to call their own.

Pine Grove Elementary, which has four of its six new portables up and running, no longer has an art class being conducted on the cafeteria stage. But one special education class and several other staff people, including some who work with struggling and at-risk kids, are working from makeshift areas.

"It's taken us awhile to get settled into the routine," said Pine Grove principal Dave Dannemiller. "It impacts all the teachers, and it makes it tougher."

Amid all of the making-do, the long-suffering campus of Hernando High School is enjoying one of the driest, cleanest, most mud-free September in recent memory. Students moved into a new two-story classroom building on Aug. 29.

The 20 new classrooms drastically reduced Hernando High's reliance on portables. Unlike life in his old portable, science teacher Joseph Vitalo says he can conduct actual experiments in his new classroom, which includes a demonstration table in front of the class, a row of sinks and a bank for five computers that will soon be hooked up. "We can actually be a science class," Vitalo said.

Each room is equipped with larger college-style desks for students, ceiling fans for efficient air movement and bathrooms adjacent to each classroom.

"This is a high-quality building," said Assistant Principal Rick Wilson.

The new sidewalks, landscaping and covered walkways that were part of the $4.3-million project have also reduced the dust, mud and rain-soaked sprints between classes.

Last year, during the thick of construction and a grass-killing drought, the campus resembled a dust bowl. Today, there is a new carpet of sod, an assortment of new trees and wide array of shrubs.

Things are so nice, said senior Jaime Joyce, that older students who once slogged through the mud have taken to hollering at freshmen who walk on the new grass.

"The school was just so dirty," Joyce said. "Everything is so clean. It's very nice."

And on the 10th day . . .

Hernando County principals and district administrators keep close tabs on enrollment throughout the year. But the scrutiny is especially close during the first 10 days of school, when teachers are added or subtracted from schools where projections and reality do not match. This year, the 10th day of school was Aug. 25. Here's how 10th-day enrollment in 2000 compares to previous years.

2000: 16,665

1999: 16,162

1998: 15,995

1997: 15,862

_ Source: Hernando County School District