Lacoochee community not giving up on its school — in spite of dropping enrollment

Ebony Pickett, with son Rishon beside her, urges the Pasco County School Board not to approve a recommendation to close Lacoochee Elementary School during a Nov. 6, 2018, board meeting.
Ebony Pickett, with son Rishon beside her, urges the Pasco County School Board not to approve a recommendation to close Lacoochee Elementary School during a Nov. 6, 2018, board meeting.
Published May 14, 2019

LACOOCHEE — Six months ago, as they celebrated the Pasco County School Board's decision to leave Lacoochee Elementary open, parents and residents committed to build up the school so it might not face a similar scenario again.

Despite their efforts to encourage families to return to the tiny school in the county's impoverished northeast corner, Lacoochee Elementary continues to shrink.

Just one student requested to transfer into the school during spring open enrollment, according to district records, while another 11 requested to leave.

District planners project enrollment — which hovered around 450 children a decade ago — to slip to 260 children, or 45 percent of capacity, in the fall. It had been at 48 percent this year.

Graduation enhancement teacher Danny Vazquez said he frequently sees parents of former students in the community, and many say they'd like to return to Lacoochee.

"They say they live too far," Vazquez added, explaining that many moved out of the attendance zone to be closer to other amenities, including work. "There's not much housing out here."

Lacoochee's economic realities are what prompted superintendent Kurt Browning and his team to propose shutting down the school — which is one of the community's few points of pride — and relocating the students to Cox Elementary seven miles away.

They're also driving an effort of east Pasco residents, parents, and civic and business leaders to seek a new path that might save the school.

"Being able to save that school is not a 'let's go save the school' thing," said Withlacoochee River Electric chief finance officer Ronnie Deese, who is spearheading the initiative. "We are looking at a four- or five-pronged approach."

Part one is having nearby employment.

Many parents who live nearby take advantage of open enrollment to transfer their children to schools closer to where they work. Nobody works in Lacoochee, Deese noted, because it has few real jobs.

One piece of the solution, therefore, is to bring in jobs.

Deese said there is a plan in the works to redevelop the old lumber mill site near the school into an industrial park. An investor is purchasing the land, he said, and has a tenant in mind who could bring 30 jobs quickly with dozens more to follow.

"We want to put businesses in the Lacoochee area that are hiring people who live in the area," Deese said, suggesting more details could be revealed before the beginning of June.

To attract workers, though, Lacoochee needs better housing, Deese continued.

He said the working group has discussed with a Tampa developer a proposal to bring "workforce housing" — a step or two above Habitat for Humanity homes — to the community. To get that, the area would need improved infrastructure, such as roads, water and sewer.

The group is discussing the possibilities with governmental entities, which "seem receptive" to the idea.

At the same time, the working group has noted that Lacoochee Elementary has no specialty programs to attract families who use choice options to leave, or to lure others in.

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Some neighbors are putting together a presentation to ask the School Board to place a performing arts magnet at Lacoochee to fill the void.

Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley, part of the majority that voted to keep the school open, said she backs the concept.

"That area is ripe for a school for the arts," Crumbley said. "The only thing that's going to draw is having something that's really cool and unique there."

Principal Latoya Jordan said she had heard some requests to add the advanced Cambridge program to the school. But because San Antonio Elementary already offers Cambridge, she said, convincing families to transfer might be a hard sell.

The idea of performing arts might work, Jordan said. But lacking additional resources — in fact, the school has lost some positions and could lose more as its numbers decline — means anything Lacoochee does in this regard would have to be incremental, she said.

One place to start might be adding more student clubs and extra performances, Jordan said, adding, "whatever we do for the fall will be small."

She acknowledged that she worries the school might not rebound, and the board could find itself reconsidering a proposal to consolidate Lacoochee into Cox.

Still, knowing the efforts that business and government leaders are putting into reviving the area and helping the school gave Jordan confidence that, given enough time, a rebound could happen.

"It is going to be slow," she said. "But when you have companies coming together trying to bring business to Lacoochee, that shows me there is some progress."

No one liked it when Browning suggested shutting the school, Jordan added. His recommendation had one positive outcome that might make a difference, though, she said.

"It brought this community together," she said. "It really did."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.