Minutes after the 9:30 a.m. bell rang Monday, signaling the start of the first day of school, nearly every student at Pinellas Park Middle School was seated in their homeroom classrooms — a feat teachers said would have been impossible last year, when the school earned its third consecutive D from the state.
This year, the school has a new principal, and about one-third of the teachers have been replaced with new faces ready for a fresh start, just like the more than 100,000 Pinellas County students returning to a school year administrators say will be full of changes and challenges.
“Honestly, our biggest challenge is just juggling it all,” said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. “But all of the changes we’re making are good changes that are really going to help us in the long run, and it’s exciting. Some of the things are coming to us at the last minute; but, overall, we’re operating much smoother than years past.”
Crossing guards and police officers were out in full force making sure motorists kept a look out for students on the first day, and bus drivers dissected the county with more than 500 routes tested for safety and efficiency. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster even stepped in as a crossing guard at Melrose Elementary, Shore Acres Elementary and Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.
Parents picking their students up from Fuguitt Elementary School in Largo Monday afternoon had to park in nearby restaurant parking lots and on neighborhood streets because the car line extended well into the intersection of Ulmerton Road and 101st Street, slowing traffic on Ulmerton to a crawl in both directions. The backup wasn’t anything unusual for the first day, school officials said: Normally, first-day traffic takes an hour or so to clear after school lets out at 2:35 p.m.
Megan Mahaney parked in a nearby Golden Corral parking lot to meet her 4-year-old daughter Johanna as soon as she finished her first day of kindergarten.
“School was lots of fun. My favorite part was eating apples and meeting a boy in my class named Jojo,” Johanna said. “My teachers were nice, and I decided I want to be a fireman when I grow up.”
Traffic was no better at the James B. Sanderlin IB World School in South St. Petersburg. The stalled car line slowed morning commutes along 22nd Avenue South, and parking was hard to come by in the parking lot of the school, which welcomed eighth-graders this year and became Pinellas’ second K-8 school.
On campus, students checked in at an information table set up in the courtyard, where two teachers told students where to report for homeroom. This year, many of the new faces at Sanderlin were those of teachers.
The first day is a rush at most schools, but this year maybe even more so. Nineteen Pinellas County schools have new principals this year, and many are adjusting to new schedules that allow for extra tutoring before or after school.
Middle and high schools added more career academies, while elementary schools now have science labs and clubs that focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Some are adding an extra hour to their school days to help students catch up in reading, and 58 low-income schools will offer free lunches to all students.
Deputy Bo Bauman, the school resource officer at Pinellas Park Middle School, said he could already tell that the new administration and programs would make a significant impact on the culture of the school. There are more music classes this year, which will help students with math, as well as foreign language classes, which will help students with grammar and reading. The busier students are, the easier it is to stay out of trouble, Bauman said.
“This time last year, we would already have kids in the office for being disruptive, kids wandering around the hallways saying they’re lost or can’t find their classroom, even though you’ve pointed them in the right direction multiple times,” Bauman said. “We used to be very busy at this school, but even in the first few hours you can see a change in attitude.”
Keva Vo, 13, said she was excited to start eighth grade at Pinellas Park Middle, but the first day was also full of trepidation.
“I haven’t met our new principal yet, but he seems really nice and smiley,” Vo said. “I’m just worried about homework; it’s supposed to be a lot harder this year.”
One of the biggest challenges new principal Dave Rosenberger and his colleagues could face this year is convincing parents such as Jennifer Jones that they’re on the right track. Jones, whose 11-year-old son David Ortiz is in sixth grade, said she considered sending him to private school after hearing about the history of poor academic performance at Pinellas Park Middle. However, after hearing about Rosenberger’s plans for reform, Jones decided to give the school a try.
“I’ve done my homework, and I was really nervous, but this is his zoned school, a lot of his friends are already here, and I feel like some of the horror stories I’ve heard about this school will definitely change,” Jones said. [email protected]