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As houses keep rising, schools bulge

New schools across southeastern Hillsborough are filled - and overflow - as soon as they are built.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published August 15, 2003

SEFFNER - Within minutes of the first bell, students and their parents last Wednesday continued to file into the front offices at Jennings Middle School, many registering for the first time.

Some had just moved to the area. Others recently closed on their new homes and brought in sales contracts to show proof of address.

That's when principal Sarah Governor realized her new campus would debut with considerably more than the 977 students district officials had projected.

By the end of last week, district officials confirmed what she already knew: 1,162 students were registered at Jennings, 185 more than expected.

"And we still have people registering today!" Governor said Monday. "I am just shocked."

The pattern echoes across southeastern Hillsborough, where all but one of six new schools has significantly more students than district officials estimated in November, when they drew attendance boundaries.

In all, the six schools ended the first week with about 1,300 more students than expected, according to a third-day enrollment count. Overall, the student population by day three was 171,334 in pre-K through 12th grade, about 7,000 students more than at this time last year.

The additional students in southeastern Hillsborough have district officials re-evaluating their school construction schedule and scrambling to find land from Riverview to Wimauma, where developers are quickly gobbling up the orange groves, cow pastures and family farms.

School administrators, meanwhile, are asking for additional teachers.

At Mulrennan Middle in Valrico, where the orange grove-turned-campus is surrounded by land for hundreds of new homes, principal Quincenia Bell is asking for five additional teachers.

Her school opened with more than 1,100 students, compared to the 869 originally projected.

District administrators attribute the deluge of students in southeastern Hillsborough to an explosion of new homes that come so fast, district demographers can hardly update their maps fast enough.

"In that part of town, they pretty much frame you and pour concrete on you if you stand still too long," said Steve Ayers, of pupil administrative services. "New streets, new homes, they're just coming so quickly."

Trying to keep up

This corner of Hillsborough is the county's fastest growing, with new homes popping up at lightning pace in communities like Buckhorn Groves, Kings Lake and FishHawk Ranch.

Trying to keep up with the influx of families, the district last week opened six of its eight new schools between Seffner and Lithia. The other two were in north Tampa, another growth center.

But when district demographers project enrollment for the new schools, it's difficult to know how many children will be in each household, or at what pace families will occupy the new communities.

It's also impossible to know how many parents, excited at the prospect of a new school with brand-new computers and classrooms, will move their children from private and home-school programs into public school.

Last week proved just how inexact the science of student enrollment projections can be.

Take Sessums Elementary in Riverview. The new school, east of U.S. 301, was projected to open with 439 students. By the end of last week, more than 875 enrolled, leaving the school at 93 percent of its 941-student capacity.

Many of the students come from Panther Trace, a new community on U.S. 301 just north of Big Bend Road. Already, the development is halfway to its build-out of 1,600 homes.

"By the time we finished the boundary for Sessums, homes were already coming out of the ground from Panther Trace," said Bill Person, director of pupil administrative services. "We didn't expect enrollment to double. It's just absolutely exploding. That's like an entire school system just down in that area."

Another elementary school planned to serve families in these developments is not scheduled to open until August 2006.

That might not be soon enough: A development proposed next to Panther Trace would have as many as 400 single-family homes and 100 townhouses.

School Board member Jennifer Faliero, who lives in Valrico and represents eastern Hillsborough, worries that a longstanding growth management agreement between the county and the school district doesn't have teeth. The voluntary agreement, established here in 1997 and recently made state law, requires that any new development permits be shared between all municipalities and school districts, so that the districts can plan for new schools.

The Hillsborough school district provides the county with a report that describes available capacity in areas where new developments are proposed, said Bruce McClendon, director of planning for the county.

But the interlocal agreement does not give commissioners the authority to deny new development based on school capacity. To do that, the county would have to work with the district to amend the county's comprehensive plan.

Fighting for land

Ayers said it's becoming increasingly difficult to find land for new schools in southeastern Hillsborough, where developers are aggressively buying up large tracts for new communities.

The district is seeking land to relieve Rodgers Middle in Riverview, which is more than 30 percent above its 1,155-student capacity, making it Hillsborough's most crowded middle school. They also want to build a high school to relieve Riverview High, which has some 500 students more than it was built to hold.

Over the next four years, the area will see as many as nine new schools, possibly more if growth is intense enough to merit another look at the construction schedule.

Next year, an elementary school will open at Kings Lake on the outskirts of Gibsonton; a middle school will open along 301 in Ruskin. A new high school could open near Ruskin as early as August 2006, Person said.

An elementary school is scheduled to open in 2005 in west Brandon, and two elementaries are planned for August 2007 - one in Apollo Beach along U.S. 41; another in the Wimauma area at County Road 672 and U.S. 301.

The School Board on Tuesday will vote on a proposal to fast-track the opening of an elementary school in FishHawk Ranch, a 4,400-acre planned community in Lithia. It was scheduled to open in the 2005-06 school year, but district officials say they need it next year to relieve crowding at Bevis Elementary.

Bevis opened just last year near the entrance to FishHawk, and is already 18 percent above its 902-student capacity. The district already owns land for the second FishHawk school, and could use an existing architectural model to speed up construction.

"Our school construction plan is very fluid," Ayers said. "In that part of town, it has to be."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 14, 2003, 09:48:46]

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