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Saddlebrook school to recruit from nearby neighborhoods

Saddlebrook Preparatory School, for years a magnet for international students with a passion for tennis or golf, is expanding and opening to local students who have little interest in country club sports.

The prep school plans to market itself to students from the surrounding community of New Tampa and central Pasco. It expects to attract the kind of student who might now trek to a prep school in Tampa.

Saddlebrook's expansion plans put the prep school in good company. Several prep schools have expressed serious interest in capturing a growing central Pasco market of college-bound students looking for a nearby alternative to the public schools.

"Right now people who live in Saddlebrook are driving to Berkeley Prep or Tampa Prep _ a 45-minute drive on a good day," Saddlebrook headmaster Stephen Robinson said. "We're thinking about expanding to the local community as a preparatory program."

Saddlebrook will keep its golf and tennis focus, a niche that has earned it an international reputation. And it will maintain its emphasis on overall athletics.

The additional students would not have to specialize in golf and tennis, but they would be required to be involved in fitness and athletics. Robinson envisions a two-hour daily block devoted to fitness.

"For us, fitness is part of the curriculum, not extracurricular," Robinson said. "We don't want to lose the thing that makes us special. It would be like a regular prep school with the expectation that students will be involved in an intensive fitness program."

The school already has expanded beyond its tennis and golf focus. Saddlebrook's boys basketball team won its first game this week. The 51-44 win came over Bishop McLaughlin Catholic _ another private school taking root in central Pasco, and fielding its first basketball squad.

Saddlebrook opened in 1992 as a part of the Pasco County public schools. In 1997, the school went independent.

This year Saddlebrook Prep has 135 students, and roughly half are international students from some 26 countries. The remaining students come from Florida and 20 other states. In the next few years, the school expects to expand to as many as 200 students. There are no definite plans beyond that, though Robinson acknowledged that given the growth in the area and the shifting demographics to higher priced homes, greater expansion might occur beyond the next five years.

Largely through word of mouth, the school has developed an international reputation among tennis and golf coaches. It's a place where aspiring young players can attend school and work on their game year-round. The school's local reputation is less developed, largely because it is not viewed as an option for many students in the community.

Robinson said the school's immediate goal is to change that perception. The school will begin marketing itself to attract more community students for next school year.

Robinson summed up the school's goal this way: "We're not making little (golf and tennis) pros here; we're making college students."

_ Stephen Hegarty covers central Pasco news. He can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is hegartysptimes.com.

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