NEW PORT RICHEY — Chris Dunning is a bundle of energy as he greets families to Wendell Krinn Technical High School's first open house.
He talks rapid fire about the opportunities to earn college credits and gain career training while also completing a high school diploma. He effuses over the state-of-the art improvements the "current school" is already receiving.
"It's going to be awesome," Dunning exclaims.
The principal's zeal is contagious. As they visit classrooms, students use the word "excited" perhaps more than any other.
But many also recognize their benefit comes at a cost to those who still call the "current school," as Dunning referred to it, by another name — Ridgewood High.
"I have close friends who go there, and they're just heartbroken," said Erin Schofill, a rising sophomore leaving River Ridge High for Krinn's biomedical program. "I'm sympathetic, but I'm excited for myself."
Ridgewood High closes this spring to become Krinn Technical, or K-Tech, as some have begun calling it.
It's the district's answer to meeting state accountability demands and the area's long-stated need for a different type of career and technical education. Ridgewood has performed poorly on state exams for years,
But after 40 years, many in west Pasco bleed Ram blue and orange. And they're troubled with the transition that Dunning has planned and led since last spring. Dunning was named Ridgewood principal in early 2017.
Morale has plunged in some corners amid concerns that Ridgewood is on life support, awaiting last rites. Many teachers have questions about their status, and many kids feel abandoned as they're reassigned to Gulf or Fivay high schools.
"Right now we're trying to do our best," sophomore Ariana Santillana told the School Board. "But it's really hard when the ram is already being scraped off the [gymnasium] floor and our teachers are leaving."
Since the board officially approved converting Ridgewood in November, a dozen teachers have departed. Several expressed concern they would not meet the new school's criteria, such as having an advanced degree to teach college credit-bearing courses, and they didn't want to wait until the spring transfer season when job pickings might be slim.
Three have not been replaced, with at least one of their courses being taught by a remote teacher via computer.
The open-air media center, which sits in the middle of the main building, is under renovation. Workers are gutting and upgrading a few unused classrooms and a storage facility for more modern electronics and cyber security course needs.
The school logo has been removed from the gym floor, too. It would have been covered by a vinyl tarp for commencement, anyway, to protect the floor from chairs and heels, Dunning said.
The conversion is not a noisy, dusty process that disturbs daily activities. And it's not like all the signs are replaced and Ridgewood has stopped being Ridgewood, although it's well known the name will no longer be in use after June 30.
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Still, the bustle sets a somber mood for at least some of the students and faculty who are counting down to the school's last day.
"Why couldn't you wait until the school year was over?" asked Faith Santillana, Ariana's mom, echoing concerns from a recent social media thread. "Leave the school the way it is, and not have it become K-Tech around them."
Dunning said his team remains cognizant of the competing demands. To respect Ridgewood's 40 years serving the area, for instance, they have organized a closing ceremony, where the school is to honor students and alumni, and celebrate the past.
To move forward, though, the tech school preparations must occur, he observed. "It can't all be done in the summer."
The work is taking its toll on some more than others.
"Most people realize it is happening as good for the students," Dunning said. "But as they see things changing, it is bothering them a little bit more. … They want Ridgewood to stay. It's harder for them to swallow."
District special projects director John Petrashek said the staff aims to be respectful of the Ridgewood stalwarts while also rousing the Krinn contingent.
Seventy-five Ridgewood rising seniors decided to stay, even without entering a technical program, to be part of the 199-member Class of 2019. In all, 182 Ridgewood students have enrolled at Krinn Technical for the fall.
They'll join that excited bunch coming in from points near and far with fingers crossed that K-Tech will deliver. Some will trek from as far as Zephyrhills.
Rising sophomore Michael Carter is transferring from Sunlake High for the marine technology program. Initially leery about switching to a school farther from home with no sports teams, he got in the spirit as he received his schedule and met some teachers. His parents were more than supportive.
"I am thrilled that there's an option, a different, non-traditional high school," said his mom, Karen Carter, a Hillsborough County teacher.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeffsolochek.