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SCHOOL'S COUNTDOWN BEGINS

In just a few days, New River Elementary will open its doors. Staff and students can't wait.

Boxes, bins and bags of supplies lined the sidewalks that run between the portable classrooms of New River Elementary School, which has been sharing the campus of Sand Pine Elementary since August.

Classrooms were stripped of everything but desks, white boards and other bare necessities.

Out back, workers loaded up trucks to haul all of the stuff away. One boy turned to principal Lynn Pabst on Thursday and asked, "Is New River having a garage sale?"

Not quite.

After spending a bit more than a semester squatting on Sand Pine's play field, New River was about to claim its own school building in the New River subdivision, just north of Meadow Pointe off State Road 54. To say that everyone was looking forward to Tuesday - the first class day in the new digs - would be a bit of an understatement.

"The school is phenomenal," teacher John Leidy said. "The new building is just exciting for the kids, exciting for us."

Morgan Hart, 11, hadn't spent a day in a classroom until this year. Moving from homeschooling to a portable wasn't exactly what she had expected.

"It kind of doesn't look like a classroom," Morgan said. "It's kind of cramped."

She welcomed the move to a permanent school.

"It's really pretty, and it's bigger," Morgan said. "I think it's going to be special, and a lot of people are going to be excited. So it might be a little crazy."

The school's staff has worked nights and weekends for the past three weeks to make the transition as seamless as possible. A tour of the two buildings that are ready for students revealed classrooms already decorated, with students' names already on tables.

"People have said we're further ahead than if we had worked all summer," Pabst said.

Pabst, like many teachers and students, said the time spent at Sand Pine was as pleasant as could be. The Sand Pine faculty welcomed the temporary neighbors, sharing the library, lunch room and other facilities as if they were all just one big extended family.

Sand Pine principal Ginny Yanson said things ran so well, you could barely tell there were two schools operating on the campus.

But there's just something about getting your own school, Pabst said.

"Being in a building, this calm comes over you when you walk in," she said. "We can hardly wait until Tuesday when the kids arrive and we can see their eyes."

Not that all the work is done.

The school will remain a construction zone until the final two buildings are completed around spring break. And until Tuesday, workers and volunteers will continue to set up computer networks, phone systems and all the other things necessary to keep a school running.

"Deficiency lists" taped to walls around the school still had a handful of items to be resolved.

About a dozen media specialists from around the county came to New River on Thursday to help Pam Willoughby shelve and inventory the nearly 6,000 books she had chosen for the school.

"This is pretty cool," Willoughby said as she fingered some of the tomes, watching the volunteers load the stacks. "I'm excited about having the space to do things with our kids."

Renee Hampton, the school's assistant plant manager, looks forward to having just one school rather than two to care for. Technology specialist Laurie Howard effused over all the new equipment and opportunities that students will get in their state-of-the-art school.

"I'm just excited," Howard said, before turning to work on a server. "It's just a new beginning for the kids, for us. It's a challenge, and we feel like we've accomplished it."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

I you go

Open house

New River Elementary School, 4710 River Glen Blvd., will give parents and students a sneak peek at the new school Monday evening. The event will begin with a brief PTA meeting at 6:15 p.m. in the media center, followed by classroom visits beginning at 6:30 p.m. The evening's theme is "Leap into the New School," and activities will include a moonwalk and other things associated with leaping.

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