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Starting today, 400,000 kids in Tampa Bay are headed back to school

Classes begin in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. Pinellas follows on Wednesday.
The desks were empty during Wednesday night's open house at Memorial Middle School in Tampa. Their new occupants arrive today for the start of the 2019-20 school year. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

After a summer of rest and preparation, three Tampa Bay area school districts are roaring back to life today, with a fourth starting classes later in the week.

The 2019-20 school year begins this morning in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. Pinellas will launch on Wednesday.

Public school districts in Florida are huge operations, so their impact is felt in many ways.

More than 400,000 students across the four counties will head back to class this week, many of them ferried by yellow buses that will rumble down area roads in waves throughout the day. Also headed to work — and back into the daily commute — are some 25,000 classroom teachers.

All told, Tampa Bay’s school districts employ some 50,000 people.

Here’s a look at what’s in store over the next 10 months in schools across our area and the rest of Florida:


Students and their families walk the halls at Memorial Middle during the school's open house Wednesday in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Thousands of students here will see and feel the benefits of the half-cent sales tax that voters approved in November.

Twenty-one schools have been undergoing air conditioning renovations in the summer months that, for the most part, should be complete by today.

Nearly $18 million from the new tax has been spent so far. In addition to the air conditioning systems, which will eat up roughly half of the projected $1.3 billion over 10 years, improvements include a new play court at Coleman Middle School, a brighter gym floor at Jennings Middle School, and a cleaner-looking track at Sickles High.

The biggest of the security grades, an ongoing concern at schools everywhere, is the introduction of CrisisAlert, a system that allows teachers to press a button on a card they wear on lanyards to activate an emergency notification or lockdown.

In classrooms, Hillsborough will test a new reading curriculum in nine struggling schools while it awaits the result of a broader literacy audit. Those schools will use new texts and teaching methods that aim to integrate what the students read into their other classroom activities. If it proves successful, as it has in other states, district leaders will look for ways to extend the system to other schools.


Teachers at Elisa Nelson Elementary in Palm Harbor gathered last Wednesday to prepare for the first day of school this week in Pinellas County. The group works in the new school's Center for Literacy Innovation. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

A number of new initiatives kick off this year, including a “Bus Bulletin” at all elementary schools that will quickly spread news about delayed buses, accidents and other emergencies. Families, school administrators and other staff will be notified by text, email or phone.

The district also is rolling out a security system developed by the technology company IntraLogic Solutions. It allows any staff member on district property to initiate a lockdown during an emergency, while also sending instant notifications to administrators and the police department.

On the academic side, Pinellas adds to an already extensive menu of choice programs with the reopening of a school formerly known as Palm Harbor Elementary. The new Elisa Nelson Elementary, named after a student who was murdered near the campus four decades ago, will host two programs — the Center for Gifted Studies and the Center for Literacy Innovation.

Elsewhere, a new collegiate program at East Lake High will allow students to earn an associate of arts degree along with their diploma, and several district-run Voluntary Prekindergarten programs will start teaching Spanish twice a week.

The district’s food service department, meanwhile, is phasing out plastic foam containers in cafeterias, debuting a vegan menu and adding new food items, including Mandarin Orange Chicken and Blueberry Lemon Scones.

Dunedin and North Shore elementary schools will pilot a composting program, and students at seven high schools will be able to buy iced and hot flavored lattes at outlets called “Moo Brew Stations.”


Monday is the first day of school for more than 75,000 students and roughly 5,100 teachers in Pasco County. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Safety was a high priority with school officials as they approached the first day of classes.

The district changed the locks on 4,000 classroom doors to keep them locked from the inside at all times. The goal is to give Pasco teachers and students an extra layer of protection from outsiders who might enter their campuses.

The also district added new surveillance cameras at several schools.

In addition, it expanded its free morning breakfast program. All children in 51 district schools — those with higher numbers of low-income students — will get a free daily breakfast. Schools were working out the details of how to allow kids to eat in classrooms without making a mess.

Many Pasco students will be greeted with new construction. New structures are on the rise at Crews Lake Middle-High and Zephyrhills High. Others will find the fences and work trucks gone, as the extended renovation project at Land O’Lakes High has come to an end.


After serving as interim superintendent in 2018 and landing the permanent job in March, John Stratton enters his first year as the full-fledged leader of Hernando Schools. [Courtesy of Hernando County School District]

This will mark John Stratton’s first full year under contract as school superintendent. He led the district through last year after being named interim superintendent in summer 2018, then was officially hired to the job in March.

He’s already left an imprint with an administrative reshuffling, including the hiring of the district’s first-ever senior recruiter, a position Stratton hopes will help the district tackle a teacher shortage.

Security standards and the district’s financial future will likely continue to be top priorities for the School Board. District officials will look to keep up with safety requirements after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a $1 million appropriation for security improvements, and they’ve expressed interest in bringing on school guardians in addition to school resource deputies.

In the schools, staff will see a few technological changes including an app-based emergency communication system. And after a downturn in third-grade reading scores this year, the School Board is set to approve an early literacy program and a training program to show teachers how to improve reading instruction.


Military jets fly over the state Capitol in Tallahassee, where every year lawmakers approve new mandates for Florida schools. This year was no exception. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The state has a number of new mandates. Starting this year, all districts must:

• Offer a half-credit elective course in financial literacy. It will acquaint students with basics like using credit, taking a car loan, affording college or paying rent.

• Provide five hours of instruction each year on mental and emotional health for students in middle and high school.

• Provide a career and education planning course to help middle school students set goals. The lessons must result in a “completed personalized academic and career plan,” and include information about entrepreneurship and employability skills.

Also new this year, the Legislature is allowing teachers to be armed school guardians, but no Tampa Bay area districts are taking up that option.

Staff Writers Jack Evans, Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.