CLEARWATER — Some parents may have shorter morning commutes next school year when the school district reopens two elementary schools as technology magnets.
School board members are expected to take the first step toward reopening the schools when they meet Tuesday to consider establishing zones and enrollment procedures for them. Renovating the schools, which closed in 2009 because of low enrollment, is “very do-able” before the beginning of the next school year, Superintendent Michael Grego said.
Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach and Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater will open as “schools of choice,” meaning no students will be assigned automatically to attend, Director of Student Assignment Bill Lawrence said. School officials hope to start an application period by March 12 or 13, so the first classes may start in August 2014.
Gulf Beaches will have 18 classrooms for 348 kindergarten through fifth-grade students, and Kings Highway will have 14 elementary classrooms for 276 students and 14 preschool classrooms for up to 252 students. About half of the seats will be reserved for students living in the schools’ traditional zones, 20 percent will go to students living within three miles of the schools, and the remainder will be open to anyone living in north Pinellas for Kings Highway and in south Pinellas for Gulf Beaches.
School officials hope the schools will help to reclaim students in those zones who left for private schools or are on waiting lists for other choice programs, Lawrence said. Although the schools originally closed because of low enrollment, the student populations in the areas have grown. About 300 kindergarten to fifth-grade students in the Gulf Beaches zone currently attend Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg. About 440 kindergarten to fifth-graders live within two miles of Gulf Beaches, and more than 1,300 students are within three miles.
At Kings Highway, almost 600 kindergarten to fifth-grades live in the zone, and more than 2,000 live within 1.5 miles of the school. Both schools could be filled within two weeks, Lawrence said.
“The compelling need for reopening these schools was the significant number of students in those zones that opted for parental choice schools, like fundamental, magnet or charters, or are no longer attending a Pinellas County school at all,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to brand these as centers for innovation and digital learning, models of innovation where every student has a digital learning device in the palm of their hands.”
Although vacant for years, the schools are in good shape, said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of operational services. The ceilings, windows and lights were replaced at Gulf Beaches just before the school closed. And because the carpeting was pulled up at Kings Highway, the school district won’t have to worry about moldy flooring, Bessette said. Both schools will need camera systems, and the fire alarms have to be checked.
Gulf Beaches is expected to cost about $100,000 to clean up and another $167,000 to replace the kitchen. The larger Kings Highway will take about $257,000 to clean and about $163,000 for the kitchen, Bessette said. The $680,000 cost to reopen the schools is dwarfed by the amount the district has spent to keep them around, Grego said.
“When we met with Dr. Grego he was very clear this is not a blank check, but we’re also defining this new concept, so we know we need this is going to be different,” said Pam Moore, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services. “We need to look at this through a different lens and rethink how we use things as common place as desks and furniture so we can create a professional, collaborative environment for students and adults as well.”
School board members support reopening the schools. However board member Terry Krassner cautioned that the district’s innovative ideas need to be practical and useful to students.
“I’m very excited about this, but until you know what students you have in those schools, there may need to be some adjustments,” she said.