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  1. Education

Pasco schools adding hundreds of seats to cope with growth

Construction workers have prepared the skeleton for what will become the music and art wing of Cypress Creek Middle School in Pasco County. The new school is scheduled to open in fall 2020, and to ease crowding at nearby Wesley Chapel-area campuses. (Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times)
Published Jul. 29

WESLEY CHAPEL — About 200 construction workers show up daily at the still-rural campus of Cypress Creek Middle-High, installing utilities, raising walls and otherwise preparing a new 1,500-student school adjacent to the high school that opened there in 2017.

Weather and site conditions have offered some challenges, "but we're tracking right where we want to be," said Jordan Wise, project manager for contractor Ajax.

Right now, the site features rutted dirt paths, mounds of dirt, exposed beams and the other things you'd expect of a work site. Hard hats are required.

When staffers get their keys next July, they'll be greeted by a state-of the-art three-story classroom building, which currently is farthest along, as well as a wing dedicated to arts and a black box theater, a full slate of athletic fields and the rest of a middle school campus designed to hold more students than any other middle school in Pasco County.

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It's intended to absorb all the sixth- through eighth-graders who had been attending classes in the high school next door, plus a few hundred more, freeing space for the district to bring more ninth- through twelfth-graders to the campus. Work already is under way to redraw attendance boundaries, it's one of several projects intended to tackle continued booming growth along the State Road 54 corridor, from Wesley Chapel in the east to Trinity in the west.

Over the past nine years, student enrollment in Pasco schools has risen by about 8,500 children, with the number projected to jump by another 1,300 in the year beginning Aug. 12. Most of the schools in the corridor including Cypress Creek are expected to surpass 100 percent of their built capacity for yet another year.

To ease the crunch, the district also plans new classroom wings at Bexley Elementary in Odessa and Sunlake High in Land O'Lakes, a new K-8 campus in the Starkey Ranch subdivision of Trinity, and a new technical high school in Wesley Chapel. Each is being designed, with construction to ensue within the coming year.

Campus-wide renovations including added seats have already begun at Land O'Lakes and Zephyrhills high schools. The Land O'Lakes High project is nearing completion, while the Zephryhills one enters its second phase this year.

A new 17-classroom wing opens at Zephryhills this fall, freeing space for a major overhaul of the previously existing structures.

District planners anticipate that these initiatives, along with corresponding changes to attendance boundaries, will make critical dents at several crowded schools including Odessa and Connerton elementary schools, Seven Springs Middle and Mitchell High. Planned charter schools in Wesley Chapel should help reduce the burden at elementary campuses in that community, they added.

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One school remains a point of continued concern.

Wiregrass Ranch High only recently came off 10-period days because of significant crowding, its numbers reduced with the opening of Cypress Creek Middle-High two years ago.

Ongoing housing development in the area has kept the pressure on Wiregrass Ranch, though. It's already headed back to 141 percent of its capacity, with its 2,310 expected students spilling over into about two-dozen portable classrooms.

Superintendent Kurt Browning recently told the School Board that his staff is doing all it can to prevent the school from returning to 10-period days.

The administration has hopes that the opening of the east side technical school in 2021 will draw some students, and that rezoning with the debut of the standalone Cypress Creek Middle will provide some relief, too.

Will it help? Similar efforts really haven't. Homebuilders have won permission to develop more, regardless of school seat availability.

County officials have noted, along with some residents, that the district has plenty of open seats. It's just that they're in places like Holiday and Shady Hills, and not necessarily where the new homes are going.

District leaders have not been willing to completely revamp their attendance maps to move kids to open seats. That's been seen as even more disruptive than shifting assignments within closer proximity to the schools.

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Families keep flooding the Wiregrass Ranch zone faster than the district can keep up. The high school's numbers shrink briefly with each change, but quickly return to their old levels, keeping the pressure on, district planner Chris Williams said.

Even so, the district has no immediate plans to add new buildings on that campus, deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said.

At Wiregrass, which already has so many portables, such a project would simply replace old seats with new ones, Gadd explained. By contrast, a new wing at Sunlake High — sitting at 117 percent capacity with major housing developments pending — could have the benefit of adding student stations while also getting rid of the handful of portables there.

"With the limited capital dollars we have, it doesn't make any sense to us … just building a building to replace portables," Browning said.

Instead, the officials said they will wait to see the effect of the rezonings and added schools before taking any action. If Wiregrass Ranch remains too crowded even after that, then they have a proposal to begin a classroom wing within the 10-year capital plan as a Level 3 priority — behind air conditioning improvements, but ahead of renovating the cafeteria.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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