1,500 students could be changing schools
Parents are angry as Hillsborough reveals plans for new attendance boundaries.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 16, 2006
TAMPA - More than 1,500 elementary school students living in western Hillsborough County could find themselves attending new schools in the fall, under a massive attendance boundary change plan released Wednesday.
Dickenson Elementary, 4720 Kelly Road, would be most affected. The plan calls for it to close as an elementary school and reopen as a "success academy" similar to one now operating in Brandon. About 550 students attend Dickenson, which has space for 700.
The revamped Dickenson could include programs for fourth- through eighth-graders who don't learn well in a traditional setting and for students needing extra help learning English before going to a traditional school, as well as after-hours classes for adults.
Eight other crowded schools - Alexander, Bellamy, Essrig, Miles, Oak Grove, Town & Country, Twin Lakes and Westchase - also would send children away, with 11 under-capacity neighboring campuses set to receive them. Within minutes after parents received notices of the changes Wednesday, school officials began getting angry calls. But they say they have no choice.
"We don't want to have available seats in nearby schools," said Bill Person, general director for pupil placement and support services. "The district is looking to move students to seats."
This series of moves, which still requires School Board approval, is just the first of many, he added.
The school district faces severe crowding in several parts of the county, and projects a shortfall of more than $400-million in money needed to build new schools. Yet some overcrowded attendance zones border ones with seats available, and school officials want to take full advantage of all the space they have. That's partly why they chose Dickenson for closure, saying the children could be easily reassigned to nearby schools. Dickenson's principal did not return phone calls for comment Wednesday.
All elementary, middle and high school boundaries and feeder patterns will be scrutinized for possible adjustments. Secondary schools got a reprieve for the coming year because so many students have started planning their class schedules already.
"This is an initiative that's going to go on for probably the next 18 months, and it's going to be district-wide," Person said.
News of the recommended new boundaries went home in children's backpacks and lunch boxes Wednesday. It was greeted with dismay.
Third-grader Jordan Smart said she might feel comfortable moving from Westchase Elementary School to Lowry Elementary, as proposed, because her best friend's mom teaches there. "But I don't really like the idea of going to another school," she said.
Neither did parents in Jordan's Keswick Forest subdivision in Westchase, one of four Westchase neighborhoods slated to go to nearby Lowry.
Even before the letter arrived, Leslie McCluskie, whose two children attend Westchase, heard rumors that her neighborhood might be sent to Lowry. She stood at the bus stop with another neighbor discussing the possibilities, waiting to see what came home with the kids.
"We weren't aware this was even going to be discussed," McCluskie said, after reading the missive and looking at the attached map. "We want to stay with the rest of Westchase."
She predicted a fight from her community, which recently vigorously opposed the idea of moving to a brand new school scheduled to rise in a Citrus Park subdivision starting next year. So, too, did her neighbor, Kevin Archer.
"We'll fight it with cooperation," said Archer, whose daughter is in third grade. "Parents will turn out and say, 'This is not what we want.' It's annoying that they keep asking."
School district officials expect lots of negative feedback, especially from Westchase but also from the other affected areas.
"Yes, it will cause consternation," said School Board member Candy Olson. "But sometimes, you just have to move children. My hope is, if we do this, we will avoid the yo-yo effect of moving children over and over again."
Several communities in the northwest and elsewhere, including Fawn Ridge and Twin Branch Acres, have bounced from school to school each time a new campus has opened to cope with growth. Meanwhile, some schools such as Dickenson and Carrollwood consistently have had open seats because their attendance zones are built out and home ownership turnover is low.
The School Board also must take all steps within its power to maximize its use of available student seats before asking the public to financially support new school construction, board member Doretha Edgecomb said. Regional zoning efforts make sense for planning, she said.
"We understand the parents aren't going to be happy if they have to leave the school that's their most favorite place in the whole world," she said. "As a board, we've got to think of 200 schools vs. each parent and their one child."
Parents and students will have several opportunities to voice their concerns. The district has planned eight community meetings before April 13 to discuss the plan and accept comments. (see box)
After hearing comments and making any revisions, the superintendent's staff plans to take the proposal to the board for a single-topic meeting by late April or early May, Person said.
"We wouldn't want this to drag out into the summer," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Hillsborough school officials have planned eight community meetings to discuss new
attendance boundaries in western Hillsborough. All meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.
March 29 at Westchase Elementary
March 30 at Oak Grove Elementary
April 3 at Webb Middle
April 5 at Bellamy Elementary
April 6 at Alexander Elementary
April 10 at Essrig Elementary
April 11 at Twin Lakes Elementary
April 12 at Miles Elementary.