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Growth primes Pasco for more private schools

Every school day the Emery family is pulled in two directions.

Two children take a short drive toward the Academy at the Lakes, a growing prep school in Land O'Lakes.

The other child heads to the long-established Berkeley Preparatory in Tampa, a trip where the traffic is thicker and the drive longer.

"It's so much easier to drive over to the Academy," said Scott Emery, who shares daily school transportation chores with his wife, Carol. "And the academic rigor is comparable."

Officials at independent schools in north Tampa and central Pasco figure that there are many more families like the Emerys of Odessa. Those schools are looking to gain a foothold in central Pasco to cater to parents who resist the idea that you need to battle traffic in Tampa to get a top-notch private school education.

"There's a great need in north Tampa, but where are you going to find 50 acres for a high school in Hillsborough County?" said Skardon Bliss, director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools. "That's still possible in Pasco.

"When you look at the growth, the demographics and the availability of land," Bliss said, "Pasco is a hot area right now."

Plans for Pasco

The Academy at the Lakes is established and growing. It added its first ninth-grade class 5{ years ago. It is ready to open a new building for upper division students within weeks. The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg opened the $22-million Bishop McLaughlin High School in Hudson just this school year, starting with ninth grade. It started small and is growing.

Others are on their way. The Independent Day School in Carrollwood has an option to buy 70 acres in Land O'Lakes for a high school. And Saddlebrook Preparatory School is looking to expand beyond its golf and tennis focus next year, taking in more students from the growing community.

Some plans are more ambitious than others. Some are more definite than others. Establishing a high school is a major, multimillion-dollar commitment that few can make.

Nevertheless, in a few short years parents in New Tampa, north Tampa and central Pasco could have four or more choices for private high schools in central Pasco where just a couple of years ago they had none.

Meeting the need

The acute interest of independent schools is fueled by the same factors that grab the attention of supermarkets, banks and restaurants:

There are more people. There are more people with money.

Land O'Lakes tripled in size during the 1990s, but it's not just growth. The kind of growth makes it a magnet. Median household income grew 21.9 percent to $56,789. Wesley Chapel had a median income of $65,293, the highest in the county. Both are well above the countywide average of $32,969.

Add to that the crowded conditions in the area's public high schools. Land O'Lakes High is roughly 200 students over capacity. Wesley Chapel High has about 400 students in portables. No relief is expected until 2005 at the earliest.

What you're left with is a growing base of parents who have the inclination and the ability to spend about $10,000 to send their teens to private schools.

The demographic shift that brings more families with enough income to pay tuition is just starting to pay dividends.

"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. "The demographics are changing. It makes sense to offer something to those families."

At Academy at the Lakes, head of school Richard Wendlek draws most of his students from outside the immediate community. Roughly half come from New Tampa.

"A lot from New Tampa, but also Lutz, Carrollwood, Odessa, Dade City, New Port Richey," Wendlek said. "We draw students from all over."

He expects that with more families moving into the area, and with the demographic changes to greater household income, the academy is likely to draw more and more students from central Pasco.

The Emerys had their children at the Carrollwood Day School until financial instability under the former headmaster caused them and several other families to look elsewhere. They knew of Academy at the Lakes only by name.

(In the late 1990s, the Academy at the Lakes formed a coalition with Carrollwood Day School, the Independent Day School and the Hillel School with the goal of joining together to establish a high school, perhaps in Lutz.)

Now they have two children there. Lee, 17, is a junior at the academy, and Michelle, 10, is in fifth grade. They enjoy the small campus in Land O'Lakes. Lee plays several sports, and Michelle will play clarinet in the upcoming production of The Music Man.

Brian, 15, was at the academy through eighth grade. Now he's a freshman at Berkeley. He chose to go to the Tampa school because of its better-established sports program. As a freshman, he starts on the school's highly regarded varsity soccer team.

"That's just the decision he made," Emery said of his son. "It works well for him."

Many parents in the New Tampa area _ Meadow Pointe, Hunter's Green, Tampa Palms _ would have a more difficult time commuting to a prep school in Tampa. So the prospects of nonpublic schools in central Pasco are encouraging.

"The demographic is still changing in central Pasco," said Bliss of the Council for Independent Schools. "But it's changing in all the right ways. I think a lot of schools believe this is the time."

Tallying tuition

Tuition at area private schools ranges from $5,500 per year at a parochial school to roughly $14,000 at Tampa's long-established prep schools. Except where noted, the figures below are for the current school year:

Academy at the Lakes, Land O'Lakes: $11,026

Berkeley Preparatory School, Tampa: $13,970

Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, Hudson: $5,500

Jesuit High School, Tampa: $8,950

Saddlebrook Preparatory School, Wesley Chapel: $15,000+

Tampa Preparatory School, Tampa: $12,820

+ Saddlebrook provided a rough estimate for next school year.