At high schools, squeeze is on
By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
The mob rules Paul Leonard's days.
The 17-year-old leaves for school 45 minutes before the opening bell, thereby avoiding the traffic that chokes Ridgewood High's neighborhood each morning.
Once inside, Ridgewood's halls are so crowded "you can't even get to your locker," he said. "There's no way." So the eleventh-grader lugs a backpack around all day.
Stuffed with books, it weighs about 30 pounds.
Between classes he steers clear of hallway bottlenecks, and the pushing and shoving needed to chisel through the throng. Often, that means walking to the opposite end of the school to use a less-congested stairwell.
"I walk twice the distance, but it takes half the time," he said.
During lunch, Paul plays cards with friends in the media center. "Too many people" in the cafeteria, he says. Anyway, there aren't enough seats.
And in class?
"Sometimes it's standing room only, until they can find a desk for you."
Like so many other high school students around Pasco County, Paul Leonard has learned to live with school crowding. For as long as they can remember, Pasco's high school students have crammed themselves into portable classrooms, endured long lunch lines and fought to get their teachers' attention.
Today's high schoolers will undoubtedly graduate under those conditions. It's likely that students in middle school will, too.
In a district already short 1,324 high school seats, enrollments in grades 9 through 12 are expected to swell by another 4,046 students by 2008.
A new high school is supposed to open by 2006, but it will add only about 1,800 seats, said Mike Rapp, the district's director of planning.
"After that, it gets fuzzy," he said.
Land O'Lakes High is overcrowded by 405 kids; Ridgewood by 369. Three-year-old Wesley Chapel High is already 115 students over capacity. River Ridge is home to 404 more kids than it was designed to hold. That school is different, though, because it houses both a middle and a high school.
"We know what we need, and we know where we need it," Rapp said. "We just don't know how we'll pay for it."
The long-term solution, says Superintendent John Long, is to boost the county's sales tax by a penny. Doing so could raise at least $11-million a year for school construction, and would go a long way toward cutting a shortfall in the district's construction budget that is estimated to be $50-million.
But any sales tax increase must be approved by voters, and the last time they were asked to approve such a measure they shot it down, 64 percent to 34 percent.
As district officials try to garner support for another referendum, high school principals and others are trying to think up ways to alleviate crowding without building new schools.
"It's just so crowded that we have to do something," said Bob Dorn, the district administrator in charge of high schools.
Land O'Lakes High
Of the district's nine high schools, Land O'Lakes faces the most immediate crowding problem. It is already 405 kids over capacity, and with new subdivisions sprouting like mushrooms over southern Pasco, the school's enrollment is expected to swell by 449 kids in five years.
School district officials are negotiating to buy enough land near State Road 54 and the Veteran's Expressway to build a high school and a middle school. One of those schools could open in 2006. Right now, the plan is to build the high school, but that could change.
In the meantime, Land O'Lakes administrators are trying to find other ways to free up classroom space.
Beginning next year, ninth-graders will start and finish their school day three hours later than the rest of the student body.
Officials hope that paring the student body by about 600 freshmen for part of the day will make the school more manageable. School officials offered up a similar alternative schedule to students on a volunteer basis this school year. Few took them up on it. Next year, the change will be mandatory for all ninth-graders.
"We don't have all the answers yet," said Principal Ray Bonti. "We're trying to manage the problem. It's not an ideal situation, but what else can you do?"
If the delayed starting time works, other schools such as Ridgewood and River Ridge may implement it, district officials have said.
Robin Gibson runs Land O'Lakes' media center. Keeping her library stocked and available for 1,842 kids is a challenge, she said, considering that it was designed for a school of 1,437.
The media center can handle about 120 students at one time, essentially limiting its use to three classes per period. That leaves little space and few computers, if any, for other students. So instead of students coming to the media center, Gibson is trying more and more to bring the media center to the students.
For example, she has created mobile computer labs, rolling cabinets stocked with wireless laptop computers. Now, if students need to do online research, they can do it from their classrooms via a laptop, rather than from a regular computer in the library.
"We can't accommodate all of the classes that need to be in here," Gibson said. "We're booked; we're full. But our goal is to make sure that no class gets left out."
It's that sort of adaptability that has allowed Pasco schools to handle the growth that has continued unabated for years. In 1985, Pasco schools enrolled about 27,500. Today, they're home to nearly 52,000.
"Our administrative duties have become focused on supervising large numbers of kids," Bonti said.
River Ridge High
When Mitchell High School opened for students in August 2000, few were happier than the teachers up the road at River Ridge Middle/High School.
River Ridge lost several hundred students to the new $22-million high school, giving it some much-needed relief from crowding.
Two years later, though, River Ridge is right back where it was.
To find room for her 3,271 kids, Principal Tammy Rabon had to break up some computer labs and use them for classrooms. She has personal fitness classes meeting in a drafting room.
"We need to be able to pull kids into small groups for testing, and we don't even have that," she said.
River Ridge started the year with 200 more students that it was supposed to have, and the numbers keep getting bigger.
When a reporter met with Rabon on Monday, her school's enrollment was 3,330. By Thursday, it was 3,348.
To help the River Ridge staff cope with the ballooning numbers, the district will create a new principal position there next year, so that the middle and high schools will each have their own leader. But even with all the administrative headaches, Rabon's real concern is the pressure overcrowding puts on her teachers.
The continued growth inevitably means bigger classes and a shortage of supplies, she said.
"Sometimes we don't have enough textbooks, and it takes weeks for us to get them," she said.
David Hicks chairs River Ridge's science department. When Mitchell High opened, his classes dropped to 24 kids each.
"That was a real nice number," he said.
Last semester Hicks had three classes with 38 students each.
The big classes mean he's got to work harder to reach all his students. He tries, for example, to give kids hands-on projects. But his lab desks seat only 24 kids, and he doesn't always have enough microscopes or scales to outfit the whole class. That leaves Hicks with basically two options: spreading the lessons out over several days so that everybody gets a crack at it, or putting kids into work groups of three or four.
Spreading out the lesson wastes time and forces him to create "busy work" to occupy the kids who aren't doing the lab, he said. But the other option means that, while all the kids will get to watch the project, only a few will actually get their hands dirty.
"I would rather they get the individual attention, but we still seem to be accomplishing our goal," he said.
Standing room only
Ridgewood's cafeteria can seat 484 kids, but more than 550 students eat there during each of the school's three lunch periods. Many students are left to stand or hang out outside. The cafeteria's serving stations can't handle the flow; the lines often snake throughout the cafeteria and around the tables.
Ridgewood has no auditorium; the gym seats 1,500. If all the students gathered there at once, the school would be in violation of state fire codes.
Outside, there's not enough parking. For a while, teachers parked on the grass. There's only one road onto the campus. In the mornings and afternoons, traffic stalls throughout the neighborhood. Fender-benders are common.
Like Land O'Lakes High, Ridgewood's media center is too small for its enrollment.
"When you have a large school, you don't really get to know the kids," said Ridgewood Principal Art O'Donnell. "Kids start bumping into each other in the halls, and it creates discipline problems."
Ridgewood may be in a more precarious spot than any other high school. The school is land-locked, surrounded by fully developed neighborhoods. Just about every free space on campus is taken up by portable classrooms; there are 26. With no room for expansion, no place for more portables and a student population that will hit 2,092 in five years, Ridgewood is in dire straits.
The cavalry isn't arriving any time soon.
No new high schools are planned to open in West Pasco before 2008. By that time, Ridgewood's enrollment will have topped 2,000.
High schools "are big-ticket items," said Rapp, the district planning director. "It's going to be a while."
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