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Students to choose a middle school

This year, Bill Farrell has faced a situation that many Citrus public school principals know quite well.

The Citrus Springs Middle School principal has used every available space and asked some teachers to float from room to room to handle a bumper crop of students.

"There have certainly been some challenges," Farrell said.

Now, officials are trying to find a solution to the overcrowding while protecting parents and students from a painful mandatory rezoning.

The solution: allow some incoming students to choose another middle school.

After months of discussion, a committee of school officials decided that the approximately 240 current and future middle school students from Citronelle and Pine Ridge should get to choose Citrus Springs or Crystal River Middle School.

Citrus Springs, which has a capacity for 747 students, is home to 132 more than that, according to numbers provided by superintendent David Hickey.

Under this plan, those students entering for the 2004-05 school year would get to decide between Citrus Springs and Crystal River Middle School. The Crystal River capacity is 1,082, but the school has only 869 students enrolled.

Attracting students to Crystal River actually would help both schools, according to Crystal River principal Gina Tovine.

"The reality is that we need more kids and the reality is that he has to lose some kids," she said of Farrell, her Citrus Springs counterpart. "Something has to give."

If Crystal River doesn't gain population, it will lose teacher positions. That could affect what programs the school offers. Neither principal wants that.

By the same token, mandatory rezonings can be difficult. Students get attached to friends at a school and are reluctant to leave. Parents sometimes have to change their routines. Officials hope that by offering students the opportunity to transfer, enough will take advantage and eventually even out the population.

Located in the Central Ridge area of the county, Citrus Springs Middle is surrounded by some of the fastest-growing areas in Citrus.

Crystal River, on the other hand, has little of that growth and populations at the middle school have been slacking off, Tovine said.

Parents in the affected area have received letters telling them about upcoming meetings where they can get their questions answered.

A parent information session has been set for 7 p.m. Monday at Citrus Springs Middle. Then, on Feb. 3, Crystal River Middle will host a meeting. During that session, the school will show a virtual tour and teachers and students will talk about what Crystal River has to offer from academics to extracurriculars.

"I don't know how this is going to work," Tovine said.

Hickey said he hopes even 70 or so students moving into Crystal River would be a big help.

Eventually, because of the growing population in central Citrus, changes in the attendance zones will have to become mandatory. When officials chose Pine Ridge and Citronelle, they wanted to consider everything from transportation needs to the feeder pattern of the schools.

Unlike mandatory rezonings, in this case the district will agree to transport children to either school.

Farrell said he likes the idea of the voluntary zones.

"It softens the impact and it helps the stakeholders to be the decisionmakers," he said.

Citrus Springs Middle is in the middle of its 10th year. It was built with future growth in mind, with a cafeteria and gymnasium that can handle a school with two more complete wings of classrooms. But construction of those new wings must wait until the district demonstrates that it is fully using all other middle school spaces in the county.

With Crystal River Middle more than 200 students below capacity, the school district could not get state approval or money to build the new wings.

Farrell said he wishes the new wings could be built, but he understands why the state requires every usable space be used before allowing new construction. "It's not going to be too far in the future when we need it," he said.

Besides, the current situation has advantages: Farrell likes the fact that currently nearly the entire student body fits in the gymnasium or the cafeteria for schoolwide programs. That is a luxury many schools don't have.

Farrell is hoping the plan helps both schools.

"It's really a balance," he said. "You want to be big enough to offer the programs, but you want to be small enough to know all of your kids."

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or