1. Education

New programs, new facilities, new optimism mark first day of school in Pasco

MICHELE MILLER | TIMES Faculty member Lisa Ponce assists Joy Celine, center, 11, and Santana Singletary, 10, in finding their new classrooms. Students at Woodland Elementary School in Zephyrhills started the 2018-2019 school year at a spruced up campus.
Published Aug. 14, 2018

A rainbow spanned the horizon behind Wendell Krinn Technical High School early Monday, as students arrived for the first day of classes.

Principal Chris Dunning viewed it as a positive omen for K-Tech, as most refer to the school that replaced Ridgewood High. Students arrived early, looking forward to the technical programs now being offered there.

Sophomore Dylan Ali said he was excited for the opportunity to study biomedical, something that wasn't offered at Gulf High.

"Obviously I'm nervous, because it's a new school," he said. "But I'm not that worried."

Senior Kerstian Solarte called the day "bittersweet." She attended Ridgewood and wanted to finish at the campus, despite the transformation.

"But I think it's going to be good for the incoming freshmen that want to do the programs," said Solarte.

The school had some hiccups. Perhaps the biggest one arose because of the school's transportation system.

Nearly 100 students decided not to come because they couldn't make their bus stop on time, Dunning said. But now, he said, the primary task at hand is to make the school successful.

The staff members, almost all of whom were new to the campus, expressed excitement with being there.

Robotics instruction William Ahlgrim told his students how his coursework tied directly to engineering. He warned them it wouldn't be easy.

"If you're in my academy, I hold you to a higher standard than anybody else ... and you should expect the same of me," he said.

Students indicated they were ready to meet the mark.

"I expect the teachers to be a little bit harder," said sophomore Aden Byrd, a commercial arts student. "You adapt."

Students and parents showed up at neighboring Calusa Elementary nearly two hours later.

Calusa remains on the state's accountability watch list. It lost about a dozen teachers over the summer, and the transient student body saw a large change.

Principal Kara Merlin said her staff has put in place some new programs, while refining others, to seek improvements.

The school added a STEM lab for all grade levels. Teachers will move back to small group reading instruction. Students repeating third grade will experience a new transitional program.

And the entire staff will focus on tighter routines.

The school's kindergarten teaching team was enthusiastic for the new year. They viewed their job as a mission to get children interested in education, and said they were up to getting Calusa on an upward trajectory.

"It's the foundation," said Jakea Davis, in her first year teaching. "I call this a make or break for a lot of students."

Fellow kindergarten teacher Nancy Davenport said the team set its standards high for all students. She said the faculty tries not to view the state oversight as negative, despite the high stakes.

"They only want to see us do well," she said.

Families lined up outside 30 minutes before the first bell.

Some headed straight to classrooms. Others went to the PTO's "boo-hoo/yahoo" breakfast.

"I'm yahooing," said Cameron Mullen, 6. "I want to learn."

Sitting outside the school office, second grader Jordyn Seales said he was a little of both. He was psyched to see friends and to get into the science lab, but sad to see summer end.

Waiting to get onto the campus, parents talked about their expectations. They had positive views about the school.

"The teachers here are amazing," said Jessica Cook, standing with her three children. "Mrs. Merlin is amazing."

Telisha Hall arrived without her three boys, who chose to ride the bus. (She later learned they missed it.)

"They're saying they're going to do academic excellence," Hall said of the Calusa staff. "My kids' reading levels have gone up two levels. I expect progressive growth."

She also welcomed the new armed school guard.

"I'm actually happy about that," she said. "I'm hopeful the kids see it as a safety thing and not as something to be afraid of."

Across the county, some 880 Woodland Elementary students started the new year with an improved campus.

Among the upgrades — an expanded administration suite, new cafetorium, 12 additional classrooms, new art and music rooms and a science lab. Other improvements include an expanded parent drop-off loop and additional paved parking.

All classrooms were fitted with new furniture, too.

"It really sets the tone for the school year and for our theme, "Our Children, Our Inspiration," principal Shauntte Butcher said.

"We're focusing on the kids. We're focusing on making ties with them and recognizing their talents and making sure teachers are building lessons, building interest and letting students inspire us as we're working to meet the standards."

All was quiet inside as Butcher made her way back to the school office after leading the pledge and greeting students.

"It's 9:45, and basically everyone's in their classroom, so we're great," Butcher said, with a smile, before heading to the front office to help her staff with typical first-day kinks: late registrations, transfers and bus passes.

District officials said the start of school went off with no major problems. Some parents complained on social media that classrooms were overcrowded.

The district has said it will adjust teacher assignments after attendance settles in, most likely after the 20th day of classes.


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