WESLEY CHAPEL — Kindergartner Celeste Snider, proud owner of a purple backpack, already can rattle off a list of things she likes about school, and the school year hasn’t even begun.
“I like going to the library,” the 5-year-old girl said. “And I like coloring and building with blocks.”
Celeste, one of 726 students expected at Watergrass Elementary for the first day of school Monday, checked out her classroom during meet-the-teacher day last week, taking in the lay of the land and chatting about cats and other topics with teacher Ryan Hunter.
Similar scenarios played out all across the county as students, teachers, parents, principals and others prepared for the start of the 2013-14 academic year.
Superintendent Kurt Browning used a video to welcome back school staff members. Browning, who took office in November, told district employees that an administrative transformation that has been going on at district headquarters is complete and the district staff is ready to provide support to schools.
“I know that some of the changes that have been made have been difficult, and we’ve had some challenges along the way,” Browning said. “I have to tell you, the world of public education is much more complex than I ever expected.”
Schools throughout the county would be experiencing plenty of changes for 2013-14, even without the administrative transformation that brought new assistant superintendents and department heads with revamped duties.
Lacoochee Elementary embarks on a state-required turnaround program, designed to improve student performance at the academically struggling school that has earned a D three years in a row in the state’s grading system. Principal Latoya Jordan is new to the school, as are about half the members of the teaching staff.
Quail Hollow Elementary in Wesley Chapel and Shady Hills Elementary have been closed temporarily for renovations expected to take two years. Quail Hollow students were rezoned for Wesley Chapel Elementary or Watergrass Elementary. Shady Hill students will attend Crews Lake Middle, which has been turned into a K-8 school.
Big changes also are underway at Schrader Elementary in New Port Richey, where most of the 40-year-old school is being replaced by a new $11.5 million facility. Students and staff remain on campus, though, operating out of portable classrooms and a 16-classroom addition that was built in 2003 and will remain intact.
Meanwhile, the school board, trying to balance its budget, decided to ignore state class-size requirements this year, figuring that the state fine certain to be imposed would be less than the cost of hiring more teachers. That means the number of students per teacher for core academic subjects could exceed the numbers mandated in the state constitution.
Like other districts in Florida, Pasco is making the transition to the Common Core State Standards that 45 states agreed to incorporate. The goal behind Common Core is to make sure students receive a quality education, regardless of where they attend school in the country, but critics have questioned whether it represents federal intrusion into local schools.
Florida wants Common Core fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year. That means schools face a balancing act this year, because even as teachers phase in Common Core, students still must take Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests that are based on the state standards being phased out.
“The transition years are always difficult,” said Brooke Howard, a fifth-grade teacher at Watergrass Elementary who took training this summer to learn more about Common Core math standards.
She and the other members of her teaching team — Emily Rosekelly, Amanda Boria, Tobi Turner and Renee Marsella — try to take it all in stride.
“When you go into teaching, you have to be flexible and adapt,” Boria said.
Regardless of the standards, Rosekelly said the key is “keeping the focus on helping students learn.”
Watergrass Elementary, like many Pasco schools, also has an active PTA, and its leaders spent meet-the-teacher day signing up new members. One of the group’s major fundraising efforts this year will be the school’s second 5K run.
“It was actually very successful last year,” PTA President Maria Ayala said.
Among his other duties, Principal Scott Mitchell is trying to make sure the roughly 100 students transferring over from Quail Hollow fit in at Watergrass. The Quail Hollow students have been spread among the classrooms so there’s no separation. Everyone is now a Watergrass student. Teachers from Quail Hollow similarly were spread among the teaching teams.
“We wanted to make sure our Quail Hollow people feel welcome and a part of the school,” Mitchell said.