Losing enrollment, Pasco County’s Lacoochee Elementary School could be shut down

The school serves primarily low-income children in rural northeastern Pasco.
Lacoochee Elementary School principal Latoya Jordan, left, works with third-grade reading camp student Larry Simmons, 8, on her first official day on the job in 2013. In the 1970s, Jordan was a student at Lacoochee Elementary. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Lacoochee Elementary School principal Latoya Jordan, left, works with third-grade reading camp student Larry Simmons, 8, on her first official day on the job in 2013. In the 1970s, Jordan was a student at Lacoochee Elementary. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Oct. 30, 2018|Updated Oct. 31, 2018

The Pasco County school system appears ready to end its years-long effort to turn around Lacoochee Elementary, a chronically low-performing school that made headlines as it struggled despite keen attention from state officials and repeated infusions of federal money.

Citing shrinking student numbers and plans for a costly renovation, school district officials have proposed closing the campus at the end of the current academic year.

District administrators are "making the recommendation to close Lacoochee and transfer those kids through rezoning to Rodney B. Cox Elementary" seven miles south in Dade City, School Board member Steve Luikart said. Officials informed school employees in the morning and parents after classes ended Tuesday.

Lacoochee drew attention in 2013 after district officials dismissed its entire teaching staff with a plan to start from scratch, a drastic step allowed under Florida law that came as the state was threatening a takeover of the school. At the time, Lacoochee had received three straight D grades from the state.

It was the first school in the Tampa Bay area to feel the brunt of a staff overhaul, one of several turnaround remedies prescribed under state's accountability system.

The School Board is scheduled to discuss the idea at a Nov. 6 workshop, with a parent meeting to follow two days later. A final vote could come as early as the board's Dec. 4 meeting.

Related coverage: New Boys & Girls Club builds hope, instills pride in Lacoochee

If approved, the move would merge two schools that serve the county's highest percentage of low-income, minority children. Just over 97 percent of Lacoochee students, and just less than 99 percent of Cox students, qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a common measure of school poverty.

The school is one of the final remaining bastions of northeast Pasco's old logging community of Lacoochee.

Officials have talked about the possibility of closing it for a few years as a cost-saving measure. Until now, though, they've hesitated to take the step because the school is one of the few community centers the mostly impoverished area has.

Area activist Richard Riley said he hoped the board won't pull the trigger. But he said he understood the rationale.

"The big factor is the housing authority shut down half of the housing up here, and the elementary school lost about one-third of its enrollment," Riley said. "It's a legitimate reason."

The school now has 309 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, or just half of its capacity. A decade ago, it enrolled 433 children.

Most Pasco elementary schools house 500 students or more.

Related coverage: District nixes extra cash for Lacoochee teachers

"It was built at a time when the population warranted an elementary school up there," Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning said. "This is one of the toughest decisions I've had to make."

Still, Riley said, he hated the idea of losing a civic point of pride in an area that has so few. Business, county and state leaders worked hard to bring a Boys & Girls Club to the community to serve the children, he noted, and it would likely wither if the school disappears.

"It's a two-edged sword," Riley said. "We want to have an active community. But there's no resources to do it."

Lacoochee also has proven a tough school to maintain.

As part of the staffing overhaul in 2013, the district offered bonus pay totaling $15,000 over three years for top teachers to join the staff and help in the turnaround. The initiative saw student scores rise, then fall.

Meanwhile, many teachers did not stick around to collect the full pay bump.
District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said attracting and retaining teachers at the school has remained a constant problem, one that Cox Elementary does not have.

She suggested that the proposed merger would help create one stable school that has enough supports in place to benefit students and employees alike.
Browning said the district is exploring ways to reinvest any savings from the proposal into such things as a full-time student services team and additional classroom aides at Cox.

Also driving the discussion, Cobbe said, is a planned $1.6 million renovation at aging Lacoochee. If the school closes, the district could reallocate that money to other projects, she said.

Cox, meanwhile, recently received new classrooms and a new cafeteria, among other upgrades.

Browning acknowledged that his recommendation is likely to face scrutiny over concerns such as how to get Lacoochee families involved at Cox. Transportation isn't easy for some of them, he noted, yet their participation will be key.

But he noted that the Lacoochee students attend Pasco Middle and Pasco High after fifth grade, so the transition will just come earlier.

Browning also recognized that some schools in the area such as Wesley Chapel Elementary are overcrowded, while others including San Antonio Elementary have space. It might be argued that the district, needing student stations, could rezone the region and reassign students in a domino fashion to fill Lacoochee, rather than close it.

Browning said that is a possibility, but not one he believes will win favor from the community. It would be too disruptive to too many people, he suggested.

"Do I think that's in the best interest of kids? No I don't," he said. "I just want the best for these kids. I want to make sure they have hope and they have opportunity."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @JeffSolochek.