Crowding lingers at schools

Published February 26, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - With all the new schools going up in Pasco County 13 in three years, if you're counting, you might think that crowding wouldn't be so much of a problem anymore.

A slowdown in growth should, in theory, only help. Officials expect enrollment to rise by just 1,100 students next year, compared with a jump of about 3,500 kids in 2004.

But ask around the school district, and more often than not you'll hear that schools are still trying to catch up with the past student boom. Compounding matters is the state's class-size reduction law, which effectively cuts the number of kids you can put in a school.

District enrollment projections for next year bear all that out - 41 of 68 schools, including some of the new ones, look to be above 105 percent of capacity. Some particularly egregious examples:

-Cypress Elementary, near River Ridge, which would have 565 more children than permanent seats. That's 233 percent of its capacity. (The school is slated to get a new wing.)

-River Ridge Middle, with 457 more students than seats, or 143 percent of capacity.

-Zephyrhills High, with 600 more students than seats, or 155 percent of capacity.

Then there's Wesley Chapel. That's the area of Pasco County that accounts for more than half of the enrollment growth each year, and where so many of the new schools are rising. School leaders there look at crowding in relative terms.

Take Shae Davis, principal of Weightman Middle School.

An outsider might look at Weightman's projections - 1,244 students, or 231 more than its capacity and up from 1,107 this year - and see a crowding problem. Davis sees a school that, though growing, will remain much better off than when it had nearly 2,000 kids just a year ago.

John Long Middle School drew close to 900 students from Weightman when it opened this year. And just for some perspective, Long also is expected to grow by about 200 students and jump to 112 percent of its capacity come fall.

"It seems manageable to me," Davis said, adding how excited she is to finally have 40 portables removed from her campus.

B.J. Smith, principal at 2-year-old Seven Oaks Elementary, shares that view. Seven Oaks opened with portables and this year has 352 more students than seats. That number is expected to rise next year to 479, putting the school at 171 percent of capacity.

"You do what you have to do," Smith said. "Instead of throwing up your hands and saying, 'Isn't this awful,' you have to say, 'What do we do to make this better?' You work through overcrowding."

If there's a poster child for what's happening in Wesley Chapel area schools, it's Wesley Chapel Elementary.

Next year, the school is to send nearly 500 students away to two new schools - Double Branch and New River. In January, when the School Board reviewed attendance zone boundaries for these schools, district planners said Wesley Chapel Elementary should go down to 136 percent of its capacity by the fall from its current 220 percent.

Three weeks later, the same planners issued revised estimates showing that Wesley Chapel Elementary likely will open in August at 181 percent of its capacity. And if growth for that school stays on its current trajectory, planning supervisor Chris Williams said, "They could be as overcrowded next year" as this year.

On the upside here, the district has several sites for new schools all around Wesley Chapel. It can't access some yet, and others aren't ripe for construction. But relief is out there.

That's not the case in some areas.

One example is Odessa. District officials are looking for an elementary school site south of State Road 54 between U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway with little result, Williams said.

Schools that surround the area include new Oakstead to the north, which is expected to jump to 120 percent of its capacity by the fall, and Trinity to the west, which is holding at about 107 percent of its capacity.

School Board members view the situation with dismay. Cathi Martin, who represents southwest Pasco, says it's frustrating to face the same crowding issues year after year, despite building schools as fast as possible.

Chairwoman Marge Whaley, whose district includes most of the high-growth region, held out some hope that school concurrency - that's where the availability of student seats will determine whether a new subdivision can be built - will help once it takes effect next February.

"The concurrency will slow the builders down some," Whaley said. "I have little hope that it will be great, but some."

Other than that, she didn't see an end to what she considered an untenable situation of too many kids, not enough space.

"I worry all the time about growth," she said. "But we have done all that we can do at this point."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com (813) 909-4614 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. Check out our education blog, the Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:

By the numbers

64,526 projected total enrollment for August.

59,801 permanent seats in August

15 schools projected to be below 90 percent of capacity in August

12 schools projected to be above 140 percent of capacity

6 new schools opened in 2006-07

5 new schools to open in 2007-08