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Relief for parents, students
The long-awaited remake of Oak Park is among five new campuses.
By LETITIA STEIN and AMBER MOBLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2007
TAMPA - Even after the bell rang Monday for the first day of school, parents and students walked slowly, taking in the new Oak Park Elementary.
After four years in portables, students no longer will get soaked when it rains. The new campus has covered sidewalks. It also has new drums and xylophones and a media center equipped to produce a morning show.
Change defined the opening of the school year in Hillsborough. Revamped bus stops debuted in the southeast county, where the district is testing out a transportation overhaul. Although parents worried about safety and longer walks, the first day mostly saw typical hassles with late buses.
More than 174,500 students from kindergarten through high school showed up. That total was about 6,000 higher than last year, likely helped by a later start date and the first day being on a Monday, rather than midweek.
More to come?
Hillsborough's charter schools, which are tuition-free but exempt from many rules governing traditional schools, saw their first-day enrollment more than double to almost 4,000 students.
Including the charter students, the district's projections still call for almost 13,000 additional students to enroll in the coming weeks. Officials are anticipating enrollment to stay flat with last year, a dramatic turn for a county used to spiraling growth.
Even with slowing growth, school construction has continued. Oak Park Elementary was one of five new campuses greeting its first students. Most relieved crowded schools in growing areas. But Oak Park's opening simply was a relief.
Students at the east Tampa school, one of Hillsborough's poorest, spent the last four years in portables. They moved out of their former building when transportation officials wanted some of the land at the campus to widen Interstate 4. As negotiations with the district over the deal dragged on, some parents questioned how the situation was handled.
"I never thought I'd see this day, but I'm glad it's here," said Dana Underberg, who has sent three children to Oak Park. "This beats the portables, that's for sure."
Parents and teachers didn't dwell on the unfinished details. Library books needed to be shelved. Some classrooms were missing American flags during the morning pledge.
As the heat index climbed, similar scenes played out at other new schools. Summerfield Crossings Elementary opened its doors in Riverview. In the northwest county, Deer Park moved into its permanent home after a year in portables.
New school smell
The hallways at Hammond Elementary, a spanking new school in Odessa, still had a tinge of fresh paint hanging in the air as the first students arrived.
The school's namesake, 77-year-old community activist James A. Hammond, arrived before the sun fully rose to visit classrooms and talk to teachers.
Tethered saplings dotted the campus, shrubs lined its edges and a few remnants of construction laid in their midst.
"You've still got a little landscaping to do, huh?" superintendent MaryEllen Elia said, pointing at large mounds of dirt near the entrance with a smile.
Elia's tour of the campuses included a stop at a small elementary school at the Museum of Science and Industry, hastily opened after the district snagged the classroom space over the summer.
A nearby charter school got the highest-profile visit of the day. After the Buccaneers finished their practice, linebacker Derrick Brooks stopped by the high school bearing his name. He has pored over details, from the kind of food served to students to the color of the paint on the walls. But the reality of starting a school set in when he saw the students in the classrooms.
And the first day is just the precursor to the work to come.