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Graduation spells relief for overtaxed school

Charles W. Flanagan High loses its title as the state's most jammed school Tuesday, making it the envy of districts in the throes of growing pains.

By RON MATUS
Published June 2, 2004

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[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Charles W. Flanagan High School students, from left, Anamaria Riveros, 16, Paola Ramirez, 16, Estefania Riveros, 15, and Maria Bovio, 14, crack up May 26 as they look at this year's yearbook for the first time.
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Built for 2,700 students in 1996, Flanagan High was forced to add a satellite campus of 50 portables. The school served 5,700 students in 2003.
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Flanagan High teacher Brian Flaherty works during lunches, helping students clean up the cafeteria, which can't accommodate everyone.
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PEMBROKE PINES - Everything is epic at Charles W. Flanagan High School.

If hallways are flooded with students at most schools, here they are swamped by tidal waves. If normal graduation ceremonies are pierced by victory whoops, Flanagan's will rumble with arena-shaking roars.

On Tuesday, Flanagan High School in Broward County will graduate 1,200 students - the largest senior class in modern Florida history. And then, finally, its long reign as Florida's most overcrowded school will come to an end.

"We got through it," said principal Sharon Shaulis.

A few years ago, Flanagan drew national attention as an over-the-top symbol of Florida's school construction crisis. Torrential population growth ballooned the body count at Flanagan, built for 2,700 students in 1996, to 5,700 by 2003, making the high school as large as Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers or the city of South Pasadena in Pinellas County.

To cope, administrators banned the use of hallway lockers to prevent bottlenecks, rigged a satellite campus out of 50 portables and limited the school's 400 student parking slots to seniors with good grades.

Today, Flanagan is deflating. Feverish school construction in Broward has chipped away at overcrowding, leaving only one vestige of Flanagan's bloated years: A mega-class of seniors nearly twice as big as any in the Tampa Bay area.

Graduation ceremonies are set for one of the few locations in Broward large enough to hold the students - the 19,250-seat Office Depot Center in Fort Lauderdale, home of the Florida Panthers hockey team.

"Twelve hundred names?" said senior Anya Matthews. "It will take forever."

So will the frustrating game of catch-up that school districts must play to keep pace with Florida's growth.

Schools such as Flanagan helped spark awareness of super-cramped education facilities. That led to a special legislative session in 1997 that produced $2.7-billion for school construction. It also prompted voters in at least 18 counties to hike their own sales taxes.

It was almost enough. Then Florida voters decided to raise the bar.

Just as districts were starting to get their heads above the rising tide, along came the class-size amendment, which is forcing schools to gradually reduce the number of students in each of their classrooms.

Add the 2002 constitutional directive to the 55,000 new students who land in Florida each year - many of them in booming areas such as southeast Hillsborough and central Pasco counties - and administrators can't help but cringe.

Broward officials put 33,000 new seats in place two years ago and "we actually thought we were caught up," said superintendent Frank Till. But with the class-size amendment adding the equivalent of 20,000 new students into the mix, "we're terribly behind again."

Broward County is not alone. Florida is among the nation's leaders in school-age population growth, and strained schools are easy to find.

Just follow the sprawl.

In Pasco County, about 400 students were in portables at Wesley Chapel High School this year. At Wesley Chapel Elementary, the school stage served as a classroom because the 2-year-old facility was already 300 students over capacity.

In Hillsborough County, six of last year's eight new schools opened in the fast-growing southeast, once defined by orange groves and tomato farms. In 1997, the area's Riverview High School was a cow pasture and a blueprint. Now it's the county's most crowded high school.

Broward's growing pains are titanic. With 271,000 students, it is the nation's fifth-largest school district and growing by 5,000 students each year. Sun and suburbia pull thousands of families into the district. Tragedy has pushed thousands more.

"Flanagan High School grew out of Hurricane Andrew," Shaulis said.

After the storm devastated the Miami area in 1992, throngs of residents cashed insurance checks and flocked north to Broward, where, overnight, developers carved out subdivisions next to swampland. Pembroke Pines, home to Flanagan High, doubled its population in the 1990s to nearly 140,000 people.

The school, which is named for a deceased Pembroke mayor who relentlessly lured new growth, was overwhelmed from the get-go. In 1996, hundreds of students were forced to wait days to register, leaving parents cursing, teachers groaning and NBC's Today show zooming in for a story.

Every fall, the numbers swelled again. The district had enough money and land for another high school to relieve Flanagan, but it didn't plan well, said Till, who became superintendent in 1999. A new school opened last fall in the adjacent city of Miramar, but until then, Flanagan continued to bulge.

Little things became big hassles.

Hallways tightened. Bathrooms gridlocked.

In the cafeteria, "you can't even eat unless you get there five minutes before the bell," said senior Shaun Garcia.

To simulate the feel of a smaller school, Flanagan administrators clustered students by academic interest and hired enough teachers to keep class sizes in line. They repeatedly stressed the positive. "We provide more than an education," Shaulis said. "That's been our slogan."

Students embraced their bigness, titling the last year's yearbook, Maximum Capacity.

It came with handles.

Sometimes, bigger is better. More students mean more competition for the football team and the lead role in school plays, and it also means a bigger talent pool. At Flanagan, that has translated into an award-winning chorus and a school band considered one of the best in the state.

Bigger is better preparation for college and the best equalizer for cliques, some students said. Bigger means more diversity, too. "You don't experience this many races, religions and beliefs" in smaller schools, said senior Justin Morgan.

Academically, bigger is a mixed bag.

Flanagan offers more upper-level classes than smaller schools because there are more academically gifted students to fill them. At the same time, bigger has made it harder to give special attention to struggling students, said principal Shaulis, who said Flanagan has the same number of guidance counselors and reading coaches as schools half its size.

One measure of academic success: Flanagan has been a C school every year. Shaulis didn't blame size alone, noting the school has a high percentage of special education and foreign-born students.

"We have all kinds of factors," she said.

Another Flanagan High isn't likely in Broward. The district has tapped into more than a billion dollars in unused debt capacity to build new schools, Till said.

"We got lucky," he said.

Broward won't need to look at tax hikes for at least seven years, he said, assuming a strong economy, growing tax rolls from new construction and continued help from the Legislature in tackling the class-size amendment.

Other districts are on shakier footing. Voters in Hernando and Pasco counties approved sales tax increases earlier this year to finance new schools. Officials in Hillsborough and Lake counties are among those considering similar referendums.

"Every district in the state," predicted Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, "is going to have to do that to keep up."

After graduation, that won't be Flanagan's problem anymore. If projections hold true, enrollment will dip to 3,200 next year.

As for the next senior class, administrators expect a relatively puny 800.

- Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

BY THE NUMBERS

To put Flanagan High's graduating class of 1,200 students in perspective, here are some of the largest graduating classes in the Tampa Bay area:

PINELLAS COUNTY

Palm Harbor University High: 486

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY

Riverview High: 663

PASCO COUNTY

Land O'Lakes High: 374

- Source: school districts

[Last modified June 1, 2004, 23:55:20]


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