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Empty seats mean an easier time for students

While some high schools are bursting, Robinson remains one-quarter empty. But students and teachers like it that way.

By DENISE WATSON BATTS
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

INTERBAY - Smaller can be better.

Especially for students like Beth Woodford at Robinson High School.

As a junior at one of the county's smallest high schools, she has spots on the varsity cheerleading, soccer and softball teams. She's also a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the National Honor Society and Campus Life because clubs at Robinson have space.

"It's easier for kids to get involved," the 16-year-old said. "At other high schools, it's very competitive and you can only have so many students in each of the clubs."

Robinson starts the school year at 71 percent capacity, the lowest of the four South Tampa area high schools. That's okay by students, teachers and administrators who like smaller classes and knowing everyone's names.

"It's been small ever since I've been there," said parent Caroline Shoebottom who also graduated from Robinson. "I only know that we're happy, my son is happy. ... My son is shy and it's nice to see that the teachers take an interest in the students."

The school opened in 1959 when nearby Plant High outgrew its 1926 building and the area needed another high school. Plant and Jefferson High are at 105 percent capacity. Blake High is 87 percent full.

Every school has its own allure and shies from comparing itself with others.

Prideful on pushing the academic bar, Plant is the only South Tampa high school to earn an A grade in the latest round of FCAT scores. Ninety-seven percent of its last graduating class has gone on to college, more than at Robinson, Jefferson or Blake.

Plant is so popular, in fact, that principal Eric Bergholm said he has had to make home visits to verify whether some of his students actually live within the school's boundaries. Principals and school resource officers at other schools do the same checking, he said, but it becomes paramount when you're dealing with a crowded school.

"We have kids who think it's good to be smart," he said. "And a lot of our parents went here. There's a great deal of tradition at our school."

Jefferson, which five years ago had plenty of wiggle room, is now bursting after becoming a magnet program of international studies two years ago. Nearly 50 percent of Jefferson's student body consists of magnet students. And at Blake, an arts school, 47 percent of its students are magnet. The rest come from the neighborhood.

District officials said they wouldn't think of adjusting boundary lines to even out enrollment.

"The communities like their schools," said Bill Person, director of pupil administrative services. "Generally, they don't want their attendance zones changed under any circumstances. They say give us choice options and we'll decide where we want our children to go."

What happens with enrollment next year remains to be seen, he said. Under the Controlled Choice Plan, parents and students will have the flexibility to change schools without applying for a special assignment. In addition, Robinson will likely gain students from new housing developments within the school's boundaries, including in Port Tampa and parts of Ballast Point.

Contributing to Robinson's small enrollment is its proximity to the MacDill Air Force Base. Instead staying in South Tampa, many military families are moving to Brandon and other suburbs, school officials said.

To attract some of those families, the district last year added the MacDill Aeronautical Academy at Robinson. The program, which teaches math, science and technology through aeronautics, drew about 80 students but had little impact on enrollment overall. Robinson's population has held steady for the past two years at about 1,250.

Unlike magnet programs, Robinson's academy doesn't offer transportation.

Robinson's low grade hasn't proven a detractor, principal Kevin McCarthy said. The grade isn't a true indicator of all the work taking place at the school, and the parents know that, he said. Robinson and Blake made Ds, while bulging Jefferson made a C.

"The community knows there children go to a school that cares for them," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he'd take a few extra students. A school of 1,500 would be ideal for fleshing out the sports teams and adding to the close-knit student body.

But right now there's plenty of parking for seniors and students say they like knowing the faces of everyone walking through the corridors.

The school community is a proud one. McCarthy estimates that about 40 percent of the parents are graduates of the school. Football coach Michael DePue said six of the 14 on his coaching staff are Robinson graduates. A smaller school helps create a family atmosphere.

"You have people who want to come back and give back to the school," DePue said.

- Denise Watson Batts can be reached at 226-3401 or dbatts@sptimes.com

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