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  1. The Education Gradebook

Policy becomes personal as Pasco uproots thousands of students from their high schools

WESLEY CHAPEL — Joseph Cannella is not excited for his sophomore year of high school.

He found it difficult enough to establish himself as a freshman, moving from a Hillsborough County middle school into crowded Wiregrass Ranch High, where he knew almost no one.

Now Cannella, who found his place in the marching band, faces the prospect of attending his third school in three years. Earlier this month, the Pasco County School Board rezoned his neighborhood into newly built Cypress Creek Middle-High, which opens in the fall.

"The only real positive thing I can see is I get to go to a new campus. Other than that, there's not really anything positive about it," said Cannella, who wants to use the school choice process to remain in Wiregrass Ranch.

He is far from alone. More than 300 Wiregrass Ranch students will move to new schools next year because of the new boundaries, which were drawn in response to rapid enrollment growth and overcrowding in Pasco. They will join hundreds of others who this year attend Wesley Chapel High, Sunlake High and Mitchell High.

School Board member Steve Luikart, a retired high school assistant principal who voted against the changes, has argued that a teen's life is defined by the high school experience. Students often find their home in their school teams, clubs and classes, he said, and to disrupt that sense of belonging could harm their academic and social progress.

He also warned of creating troubles by bringing students from rival schools under the same roof.

"I'm not sure how positive you think they'll be when they arrive at the new school after we pull them out" of the programs the system urged them to buy into, Luikart told his colleagues.

It is not an isolated issue. Families in fast-growing communities across Florida, including in Seminole, Palm Beach and St. Johns counties, have taken similar stances when confronted with undesired school reassignments because of crowding.

Almost regardless of location, parents have begged their school district officials to let their children finish where they started.

Many teens have reservations.

"I don't like going to new places," said Vanessa Taylor, a Wiregrass Ranch sophomore rezoned to Wesley Chapel High. "Life is going to continue on academically. But the social part is what really affects me."

Taylor said it took her a year to acclimate to her current school, finding her niche in the drama club and courses. She dreads leaving them behind.

"It took me a long time to find those friends. None of my close friends are going with me," she said. "It's just going to be that same miserable year again."

Wiregrass Ranch freshman Erin Wood had a different concern: If she moves to Wesley Chapel High as proposed, she'd face off against her sister in weightlifting competitions.

Her sister, a junior, will remain at Wiregrass Ranch. But the School Board did not grandfather in younger siblings of rising seniors, saying they could apply for any available seats.

Wiregrass Ranch is expected to remain over capacity even with the zone changes.

"They're going to be separating us, which won't be good," Wood said. "I want to stay here. Next year I should be making varsity."

Not everyone had major concerns, though.

Freshman Matthew Badamo sounded enthusiastic about the chance to study in Wesley Chapel's auto mechanics academy. He said his family bought its home so he could go to Wiregrass Ranch, but shrugged off the rezoning, saying he'd "deal with it."

Freshman Kyle Cantwell had no issues with being sent from Wiregrass Ranch to Cypress Creek, despite playing for the football and basketball teams. He has plenty of friends headed to the new school and figured he could find his place there without much trouble.

Going to a brand new school creates different circumstances than being rezoned to an existing campus, noted sophomore Emma Appleton, who also will move from Wiregrass Ranch to Cypress Creek.

"We could have an opportunity to set an example for that new school," Appleton said. "It would be a really great opportunity for me to be in the first graduating class. . . . If you want it to be a great year, you can make it a great year."

Angie Stone, who served as the first principal of two new Pasco County high schools, said it's incumbent upon the school staffs to help students make that transition.

The move can be difficult, she admitted, noting that it took years for students at Sunlake High to accept that they were not going to graduate from Land O'Lakes High.

Some of the students who moved to Fivay High continued to wear River Ridge High T-shirts, attend dances at their old school and even sit on the opposite side of the field during Fivay pep rallies, cheering for the other team.

"I don't know if the way we handled it was right, but we let them have their say, encouraged them to participate, and let the parents and kids know all the things that were available to them," Stone said.

The faculty welcomed student and parent inquiries, and encouraged campus visits, to make everyone feel more at ease.

Stone suggested families ask questions, and said school leaders should make sure student voices are heard — as the principals of the affected schools are already preparing to do.

Cannella, the Wiregrass Ranch freshman, acknowledged that even though the move is not what he wants, "it's not going to be that terrible" if educators work to ease the switch.

Still, he suggested that district leaders think a bit more about what they're doing to students, and maybe adjust their plans to consider the real effects.

"They need to talk to the kids before they make decisions like this," he said. "Because they don't understand how much they're affecting the kids."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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