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Proposed Stowers Elementary boundary changes draw scrutiny from parents

Published Mar. 24, 2016

LITHIA — Reports from parents with kids at Stowers Elementary these days echo tales of overcrowded schools from the pre-2008 housing boom: children rushed through lunch, long lines for drop-off and pickup and struggling youngsters unable to get extra attention from teachers.

The school opened in 2009 with a vast attendance area intended to fill 972 desks. But this year, Stowers enrolled more than 110 percent of its capacity and the kids keep coming, as new homes and apartments go up in the surrounding FishHawk Ranch development.

On Tuesday, the Hillsborough County School Board is set to discuss revising attendance boundaries for the popular A-rated school, but the decision likely will be preceded by great debate. Hundreds of parents have signed petitions and sounded off on various proposals via email or social media, and more than 160 turned out for a neighborhood meeting last month on an initial proposal that would have restricted Stowers enrollment to parts of FishHawk Ranch.

"We'll see what's going to happen," said Adriana Fasoldt of Boyette Creek, a housing community west of FishHawk and half a mile from Stowers that would have been assigned to a school 2 miles away under changes outlined Feb. 9.

The school district staff has since revised its proposal, recommending that some Stowers students move to Bevis and Pinecrest elementary schools in the fall but children from Boyette Creek and other neighborhoods that would have shifted to Boyette Springs Elementary stay put for at least a year. If approved, the change would reassign about 160 students to other schools.

Fasoldt was among parents who collected petition signatures to oppose the original plan. Under district policy, her son, David, a fourth-grader at Stowers, can stay until he graduates to middle school. However, her daughter, Gabriela, headed for kindergarten in 2017, might not.

The family has lived in Boyette Creek since 2012.

"We bought this house to have both (children) going to Stowers," Fasoldt said.

Rebecca Vanlandingham of FishHawk Ranch has two children at Stowers who would remain there under current proposals. She said overcrowding has become noticeable in the walkways and, although she doesn't fault the faculty, it's become difficult to find time to talk to teachers. With new families pouring in, she said, it doesn't make sense to keep enrolling students from neighborhoods projected for rezoning in a year or two.

"The important thing is to take care of the children's needs," Vanlandingham said. "It's better to bite the bullet and address the problem immediately."

The newest district proposal suggests that Stowers' overcrowding may be eased by construction of a new school in 2017 in Riverview's Triple Creek area. The staff also rescinded the earlier recommendation to move some children to Boyette Springs Elementary because of a new center for gifted students opening there in the fall, said Lorraine Duffy-Suarez, planning manager for the district.

She said Boyette Springs received about 200 applications for the gifted center, and the district must evaluate the effects of those enrollments before assigning other children to the school. Other factors affecting the recommendation include bus service and keeping children from the same neighborhood together, she said.

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Jeanine Chambers of Colonial Hills, a Riverview neighborhood off Rhodine Road, favored the Feb. 9 plan that would have moved her third-grader from Stowers to Boyette Springs. She said some teachers at Stowers have two dozen or more children in class.

"I love my daughter's teacher," she said. "But there are so many students in there, they (faculty members) are having students teach other students in the class."

She said she inquired about voluntarily moving her daughter to Boyette Springs but was told her child was ineligible because she is not in the gifted program. She said she is now applying to a charter school.

Nisar Hussain, a Boyette Creek resident for about 10 years, has a daughter, Hanaa, attending Stowers. He wondered if some of the rezoning push isn't related to keeping the school restricted to FishHawk residents. He noted that Boyette Creek is an ethnically diverse, less-affluent neighborhood.

He has older children who went to Boyette Springs and Stowers and said he has no complaints about either school. But he thinks reports of overcrowding at Stowers may be exaggerated.

"There are (dropoff) lines in the morning, but they flow pretty decent," he said.

An online petition called "Stop Proposed Boundary Changes for Stowers Elementary," with 78 signatures, tells readers that some neighborhoods targeted for reassignment are closer to Stowers than neighborhoods that would keep their zoning.

"Coincidentally, these neighborhoods also carry the majority of racial, ethnic and economic minorities currently attending Stowers. The proposal is in essence segregating these minority groups to attend lesser regarded schools," the petition reads.

Stowers and Bevis have consistently rated A grades from the state, while Boyette Springs and Pinecrest have fluctuated between A and C in recent years.

Duffy-Suarez said district proposals were based on enrollment numbers, not ethnicity or income, and efforts to avoid splitting neighborhoods.

Contact Susan Marschalk Green at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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