LAND O’ LAKES — First-grader Sophia Dalmau Reed posed for her mother’s camera outside the gates at Connerton Elementary this morning, hitched up her butterfly backpack and announced herself ready for a new school year to begin in Pasco County. Sophia, who is 6, proclaimed that returning to school after summer break is “awesome” for a simple reason. “Because you get to learn,” she said, and Sophia likes to learn about everything, with math being an extra special subject. Sophia was among nearly 63,000 students expected to report today for the start of the 2013-14 academic year in Pasco County. All across the county, buses were rolling, parents like Sophia’s mother were snapping photographs and teachers were awaiting the students’ arrival.
Connerton Elementary is starting the school year with 965 students, nearly 70 more than the school district anticipated and about 200 more than the school’s capacity. Principal Aimee Boltze was undaunted by the numbers. “It’s going to be a great day today,” she said. “I think we’re ready.” At the appointed time, Boltze unlocked the gate to the classroom area and parents and children poured in, some clutching maps that would show them how to find the right room and teacher. Many of the students smiled broadly or looked around in wide-eyed anticipation, but some were apprehensive. A tearful Peyton Fivecoat, 5, raced out of his kindergarten classroom in pursuit of his mother, Paula Fivecoat, who hugged him again just outside the door. “I’ve got 10 (children),” Fivecoat said. “That’s the first one that’s chased me out of the room.” Older elementary school students were more nonchalant. “Most kids are ready to be back in the routine and start it again,” fourth-grade teacher Amanda Szymanel said as she stood at her classroom door, welcoming her young charges. Superintendent Kurt Browning began his day at Crew Lakes Middle, which this year has been transformed into a kindergarten through eighth-grade school because of the temporary closing of nearby Shady Hills Elementary. Shady Hills is undergoing a renovation expected to take two years. Mixing the elementary school students with middle school students at least initially proved unpopular with many parents, who packed school board meetings to protest, but Browning said he is pleased with how Principal Tom Barker and his staff prepared for the first day. “They knocked it out of the park this morning,” Browning said. And although some parents had qualms about a K-8 school, the superintendent said Crews Lake has had numerous school-choice requests from parents who want their children to attend there because they like the convenience of having their elementary school children and middle school children at the same school. “We want to make sure our parents are happy,” Browning said. “We want to make sure they are satisfied with the school and the quality of education.” Across the county, it was an all-hands-on-deck day for district administrators, who reported to schools to help out. Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd even rode along on one of the Crews Lake bus routes. Tribune photographer Cliff McBride contributed to this report. [email protected] (813) 371-1853 Twitter: @RBlairTBO