Lacoochee Elementary parents, staff hope to hold off proposed school closing

'I feel like this is the only thing this community has,' PCTO president Savanna Harris says.
Lacoochee Elementary fifth graders Estefania Hernandez and Nathaniel Adams read the school announcements on Oct. 31, 2018.. They say the idea of closing their school is "horrible." [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Lacoochee Elementary fifth graders Estefania Hernandez and Nathaniel Adams read the school announcements on Oct. 31, 2018.. They say the idea of closing their school is "horrible." [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Published Oct. 31, 2018|Updated Oct. 31, 2018

Savanna Harris got the news that Lacoochee Elementary might close next spring about an hour before the Pasco County school district sent out the official robo-call to parents after classes let out Tuesday.

A friend had texted a news report about the proposal, and Harris' second-grade daughter saw the message and ran outside to deliver the details.

"When I read [the message], I was just in shock and did all I could do to not cry," said Harris, president of the school's Parent-Child-Teacher Organization.  "Then it turned to, what can we do?"

Related coverage: Losing enrollment, Pasco County's Lacoochee Elementary School could be shut down 

Parents, staff members and students buzzed with upset Wednesday morning as they arrived on the campus that serves a mostly poor and minority community of remote northeast Pasco County.

"That's going to hurt," said Demond Woods, as he dropped off his daughter and stepson.

He, like many others, spoke of the school's commitment to the children and the neighborhood, which has so little else in the vicinity. And he worried that the disappearance of the school would hurt the children who need it most.

"The school is a big part of the reason the kids come to school each day," added Dora Limas, whose third grade son attends Lacoochee.

Many parents don't wake their children in time for classes, much less have the ability to drive them to campus if they are running late, Limas said. It's the school staff, working "above and beyond," that makes the kids want to attend and gets them moving, she said.

That point wasn't missed even by the students who make the school's morning announcements.

"So many people who live in this area don't have cars, and they might not have enough money to drive to school," said fifth grader Nathaniel Adams. "And there's not many [public] bus stops."

He called the idea of shutting down Lacoochee "the worst thing they can do."

"I think if they could, they should at least ask a request of other students who are maybe having a hard time at their school, so we could have more students at our school," said fifth grader Estefania Hernandez, reacting to the concerns that Lacoochee's shrinking enrollment is behind the proposal. "It is really good at this school."

PCTO president Harris agreed, saying she chose to send her daughter to Lacoochee even though she had other options. The school is a keystone of the community, she said, where families come for assistance well beyond education.

"I really want to know what we can do to prevent this," Harris said. "I realize there's a business aspect to schools. But if we're talking about the best interest of children, that's being ignored."

School secretary Tracy Sanderson, who sent her own children to Lacoochee and lives three miles away, worried about the future of the school where everyone knows each other's name and treats one another like family.

"I think that we kind of hold this community together. We help everybody do everything," Sanderson said. "If we weren't there, I don't know who would be there to help and support them."

Shelby O'Dell, who has a child in prekindergarten, said it seemed as if the area had a target on its back.

"I feel like they're just trying to get rid of the community of Lacoochee, period," O'Dell said, listing the recent closures of the area YMCA and some affordable housing as examples.

She and others noted that the decisions are being made with little notification to the most affected people, and are scheduled for early morning meetings miles away in Land O'Lakes.

"It makes me mad," said Limas. "They could have at least said they were thinking about it" months earlier.

Limas was among those who said they planned to send emails to district officials logging in their questions and complaints, and to attend board meetings if they're able.

"I'm going to go with a sign: 'What do you want me to do?'" she said.

School Board member Allen Altman, who represents the Lacoochee area, said he has long had strong concerns about the viability of the community if the school were to close. That's part of the reason the discussion hasn't gotten far in past years.

But he said the educators he knows who work with Lacoochee Elementary have allayed many of his biggest worries, with plans to increase support services and academic opportunities beyond what the school currently has — if the concept to merge into Cox Elementary wins approval.

"The decision was not made lightly, and I am 100 percent confident it was made in the best interest of children," Altman said.

He acknowledged that conversations need to occur, where parents can ask their "honest, legitimate questions," and get straightforward answers. Change would not be easy, Altman said, but perhaps families will see value in the possibilities after they get more information.

Harris, for one, was willing to listen, but had big doubts.

"There are so many kids here that this place, and the Boys & Girls Club [across the street], are their only safe spaces," she said. "I feel like if the school closes, they will be lost."

The School Board has scheduled a workshop to discuss the proposal to close Lacoochee for immediately after its 9 a.m. meeting Tuesday. The district will hold a parent meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Lacoochee Elementary.