tampabay.com

Things are looking up for school

Without the money or space to sprawl, schools look skyward for places to put students.

By JEFFERY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 21, 2007


LAND O'LAKES - Driving down State Road 54 between Land O'Lakes and Odessa, you can't help but notice it.

Three-story Rushe Middle School looms above a sea of homes, dwarfing even neighboring Sunlake High School.

You might not think twice about it if you were in Manhattan or Miami, where even taller school buildings are common. But Rushe, which opens in the fall, seems almost outsized here in suburbia.

It's a sign of things to come. Though Rushe is Pasco County's first three-story school, it won't be the last. And the county certainly won't be alone, as its neighbors to the north and south also are contemplating building up as an alternative to building out.

"It allows you to adapt," said assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, who oversees land acquisition and construction for the Pasco School District. "It allows you more options when you're out there looking for land."

Three-story middle schools are already in the works for Connerton and Shady Hills, and officials are considering it for a new high school in Hudson. The latter has raised some hackles in Hudson, where neighbors don't want any school in their back yard, let alone one that some worry will look too "industrial."

Right now, three-story schools are scarce in west-central Florida. A couple of Pinellas County high schools have three-story wings, and Hillsborough County has two - historic Hillsborough High and relatively new Rampello Elementary.

As land prices rise and land availability shrinks, though, planners in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties are joining Pasco in the investigation of using taller schools as a primary solution.

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia frequently talks about thinking "outside the box" when it comes to construction, and points to Rampello - built on a tight downtown Tampa parcel - as an example. The idea also has come up in evaluating sites, some as small as 1.3 acres, in the county's fast growing northwest corner.

Pinellas, which doesn't build many new schools these days, is looking at the three-story concept as it rebuilds some aging structures. It has a three-story option for the planned new Boca Ciega High, county facilities department director Tony Rivas said.

"Historically, what used to be built in Florida was one-story schools. For years, we have been doing two-story schools," Rivas said. "Three stories might be the next step in the evolution ...It really makes some sense."

The trend is most pronounced in districts where land comes at a premium.

"Counties that have plenty of land are reluctant to even go to two stories," said Jeffrey Cobble, executive vice president of Harvard Jolly Inc. architects, which works with several Florida school districts.

The multistory school "is a trend that is typically going on in more populated counties. Even in Pasco County, where land was plentiful at one time, it's becoming hard to find sites," Cobble said. "Hernando County has embraced the three-story concept, too, because they are having trouble finding sites, too."

The use of land is not the sole reason behind taller schools. School planners also like community and security features that a more compact, enclosed structure offers, said Jim Brady, executive director of America's Schoolhouse Council.

Students generally don't end up in portables a long walk away from central services, such as the cafeteria or media center, he says. The principal, meanwhile, can lock down the school or get to trouble spots quickly in a three-story design.

During the 2004 Penny for Pasco campaign, many people pushed district officials to consider saving tax money by building taller schools rather than spending the money on costly land.

At first, the idea sounded foreign. But it became a necessity when officials started exploring options for Rushe. The school district wanted - some say needed - to build both a middle and high school on 67 acres it owned by the Concord Station subdivision near Land O'Lakes. The custom, however, had been to use as many as 80 acres for a high school alone.

Middle schools usually required 35 to 40 acres.

Gadd had recently talked with a Harvard Jolly architect, who mentioned in passing a new three-story middle school the firm had designed in Fort Myers. Needing to fit a middle school onto a smaller-than-usual footprint, Gadd called the Fort Myers school's principal and set up a field trip for himself and three local principals.

Impressed, the team recommended that Pasco use the same design for the new middle school.

Gadd has become a fan. As the district's chief land buyer, Gadd doesn't want to be a speculator or an investor. That means he seeks the smallest piece of property necessary to meet children's academic needs.

Three stories means less land, which is welcome news to developers, who sometimes have to provide land for schools but don't want to give up too much of the development to nonrevenue sources. The concept also makes the district more flexible in evaluating sites where it might share parks or libraries with the county government.

"By having these different designs in your tool chest, it makes you more adaptable and you can react more quickly," Gadd said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813-909-4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.