It's back to school today for Pasco County students
WESLEY CHAPEL - First-grade teacher Debbie Hodros may need to brush up on her science lessons this year. One of her students is Emily Scoles, 6, who proclaims science as her favorite subject, though she's pretty good at coloring, too. "I like making experiments," Emily said last week as she visited Hodros' classroom at Double Branch Elementary during the school's orientation day. Pasco County schools welcome back students Monday as the 2012-13 academic year begins.With a new superintendent soon to take office, it's a year guaranteed to bring changes at both the district offices and in the classroom. Some of those changes will be more evident than others. Richey Elementary in New Port Richey has been transformed into a new school, thanks to a $15.6 million reconstruction project. It began after the school district conducted a study to determine whether it was more cost-effective to renovate the aging school or tear it down and start over. Meanwhile, Richey's old administration building is being leased to AMIKids Pasco, an organization that works with troubled young people who are at risk of dropping out. Gulf Highlands Elementary, an F school a year ago, heads into the new year as a C school after a concerted effort to improve saw the school jump two letter grades in the state Department of Education's grading system. Several schools have new principals, the result of retirements, promotions or transfers. Among the new principals is Vaughnette Chandler at Double Branch Elementary, who was promoted from an assistant principal job at Denham Oaks Elementary and takes over for Peggy Lewis, who retired. "It's exciting," Chandler said last week. "My first order of business is getting to know people." Teachers at Double Branch say they are enthused about a change in the way their teaching teams are organized. In the past, teams included a mix of grade levels, but now each grade level has its own team. "I'm looking forward to collaborating with the other kindergarten teachers," Patrina Brickman said. Fourth-grade teacher Tiffany Hernandez also is a fan of the new approach. The school's fourth grade is even more personal for Hernandez this year. Some of her son Zachary's friends are in her class. Zachary, 9, is not among her students, though. He is assigned to Wendy Townley, another teacher in the pod, but it won't be that difficult for mom to keep track of his progress. Double Branch Elementary, with a capacity for 762 students, has slightly more than 800 this year, and more students could trickle in over the next few days and weeks. Districtwide, Pasco is projecting an enrollment of 62,065 in its elementary, middle and high schools. That number doesn't include charter schools or education centers. Enrollment numbers are always important, but this year even more so because Pasco is facing heat from the state over failing to meet class-size requirements last year. The state fined the school district $4 million in 2011-12 for its class-size failure but reduced the fine to $1 million based on Pasco's promise to meet the requirements this school year. The state constitution mandates how many students can be in a classroom for core academic subjects. The limits are 18 students in kindergarten through third grade; 22 students in grades four through eight; and 25 students in grades nine through 12. Going into this school year, Pasco anticipated needing an extra 107 teachers to comply. An official student count that must be submitted to Tallahassee takes place in October. So district officials, principals and teachers will be keeping a close watch on the numbers because one extra student can tip things and force the reshuffling of classrooms. Mostly, though, teachers and their students are just preparing for a year of learning. First-grade teacher Hodros said she loves teaching children in that age group. "Look how sweet they are," she said. "They like school. They like me." Hodros said she definitely is ready for the school year to begin. "I'm excited," she told Emily. "Are you excited?" Emily nodded. She and her parents left, but the teacher and the student will see each other again Monday morning.
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