Remakes of two elementary schools draw praise from students, staff, parents

Chase Fisher, 8, left, and Zachariah Stinntt, 8, work on a laptop in Stacey Gonzalez’s class on Sept. 4 in Shady Hills.
Chase Fisher, 8, left, and Zachariah Stinntt, 8, work on a laptop in Stacey Gonzalez’s class on Sept. 4 in Shady Hills.
Published Sept. 10, 2015

Jessie Barnett was "scared" when Shady Hills Elementary School shut down for renovations two years ago.

She, like many in the north-central Pasco County community, worried that the school wouldn't reopen after children relocated to nearby Crews Lake Middle, which had converted to a K-8 school just for them. She even protested at School Board meetings.

Standing in the overhauled Shady Hills media center two weeks into the 2015-16 academic year, the Parent-Teacher Organization president breathed easier.

"I think it looks awesome now," Barnett said, pausing from volunteer work with the fall book sale. "I'm very happy."

To the east in Wesley Chapel, Quail Hollow Elementary underwent a similar two-year, $8.5 million rebuild, with students dispersed to two other campuses.

The move wasn't always easy, kids said. They didn't know where to go in their new schools, and many of their friends got sent to other places.

"It was hard," admitted Kayleigh Laskerr, 10, who spent third and fourth grades at Watergrass Ranch Elementary before returning to the like-new Quail Hollow for fifth grade.

"It has totally changed," Kayleigh said of her new school surroundings. "If I didn't know this was Quail Hollow, I wouldn't know."

The Shady Hills and Quail Hollow projects marked the start of a several-phase initiative for the Pasco School District to completely renovate its nine 1970s-era schools designed by architect Eoghan Kelley.

Plagued by aging air conditioning and wiring, poor technology capabilities, windowless walls and circular halls, the Kelley schools stood atop the list of district construction priorities as it sought its 2012 Penny for Pasco sales tax renewal.

Students and staff at two more schools — Anclote Elementary and Bayonet Point Middle — have been displaced this year so they can get their facelifts. The others await their turn.

Parents, students and educators who already went through the upheaval said the two latest communities should grin and bear any struggles they encounter, as the end result is worth the wait.

"It's way better," said mom April Fountain, who sat outside Quail Hollow waiting for the morning bell to beckon her two children. "It's a complete change."

Even though both schools started with the same basic design, their finished products differ in many ways.

Quail Hollow went more industrial, with walls of glass, exposed ceilings and huge skylights. Shady Hills, though it too added more windows and light, stuck with more traditional walls and halls.

Where Shady Hills lost some history, such as its entryway mural, it looked to hold on by commissioning a framed version of the painting, with which many families took pictures. Quail Hollow left fewer connections to its past, with more focus on a fresh direction.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Fifth-graders at Quail Hollow, for instance, used a class project to design the furniture layout for their building's "collaboration station," which used to be known as a media center. At Shady Hills, students reveled in the fact that their media center, which featured upgrades such as wide-screen televisions for cooperative work, remained the heart and soul of the school.

"I like it like that," fifth-grader Jenna Vencevich said.

The many positive changes — covered walkways, state-of-the-art technology, bigger classrooms — did not overshadow the familiarity of Shady Hills for its community.

"You can still tell it's Shady Hills," said principal Tom Barker, on his second stint leading the campus.

Almost all of the staff came back, as did many volunteers, including some whose children and grandchildren no longer attend.

"I was concerned it wasn't going to reopen," said longtime volunteer Mary Skaggs. "But it did, 100 percent better."

At Quail Hollow, even the staff was new, with just six returning teachers. Principal Kara Smucker revamped the instructional model, too, meaning that little more than the school's shell, and its name, remain intact.

Music teacher Olga Troost, one of the few holdovers, barely could contain her enthusiasm for the changes.

"Clean. Nice. Modern. Great. Oh, my gosh, it's like a fairy tale story for me," she said. "I cannot believe I'm here. It's my room, but it's different. It's light. Windows make it completely different."

The staff and students come in smiling and working, she said, and it's contagious.

"I talked with many people who did not apply and did not want to come here," Troost added. "Then they visited and told me they (made) mistakes."

Pat Rodeffer lives two minutes away, and her grandson is in fourth grade at Quail Hollow. She welcomed the changes, too.

"There's no comparison. Absolutely no comparison," Rodeffer said. "The old school was dark and dingy. It had no light in it. This is like walking in the sunshine compared to walking in the dark."

Shady Hills parents, students and teachers said much the same about their school.

"The classrooms are colorful. I like colorful things," fifth-grader Rachel Gonzalez said. "I did like the old school, but this is way better."

Added fourth-grade teacher Peggy Higgins: "This has always been a gorgeous campus. Now, it's a beautiful school, as well."

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