When Pankaj Jha moved to the Tampa Bay area, he was living in a condo in Tampa Palms while searching for the perfect school for his young children. He looked at homes in both K-Bar Ranch and Cory Lake Isles, and ultimately chose the neighborhood that would send his young children to Pride Elementary.
“We paid more to buy a house in Cory Lake Isles so my children would go to Pride,” Jha says. But, when it was time to move, his son — then in the 2nd grade — didn’t want to leave his current school. “It took me a year of driving him to school every day in Tampa Palms to convince him to go to Pride.” Last fall, his son — now in the third grade — and Jha’s daughter, who started kindergarten, both began the school year at Pride.
But now, if a proposal by Hillsborough County Schools is approved by the School Board and implemented, his children will be moved to Hunter’s Green Elementary for the 2018-19 school year.
“The biggest headache I have now is that it took time for them to adjust to going to Pride, and now I have to tell my kids they have to go to another school,” he says. “They don’t want to go to another school.”
He says not only do they have friends and feel comfortable at Pride, but they’ve built relationships with teachers. More than anything, he wants his children to go to Pride. He bought his house in Cory Lake Isles (CLI) specifically because he thought they would go there.
Jha was one of more than 300 people who packed the Benito Middle School cafeteria on March 30, when the school district staff presented its proposal for rezoning four New Tampa schools in the fall of 2018. While changes will happen at Clark, Heritage, Hunter’s Green and Pride, the loudest voices at the meeting came from residents of Cory Lake Isles and Arbor Greene (AG), where 563 stuSeedents are being reassigned from Pride to Hunter’s Green.
The proposal keeps a majority of students currently assigned to Pride together, with all residents of both CLI and AG now being assigned to Hunter’s Green. This makes room for residents of K-Bar Ranch — currently 154 elementary students — to be assigned to Pride. Right now, those students travel past Pride to get to their assigned school, Heritage. (Note-The actual number of students moving may be different because some students choose a school other than the one to which they are assigned).
It also opens up space at Pride for the residents of more than 1,500 new homes that are expected to be built in K-Bar Ranch in the coming years.
The proposed re-shuffling ends busing of students from the neighborhoods near the University of South Florida to both Hunter’s Green (HGE) and Clark and reassigns them to schools closer to their residences. From Hunter’s Green, 304 students will move to Shaw (just off of E. Fowler Ave. on N. 15th St.), and from Clark, 248 students will move to Witter (south of Fowler Ave. on N. 22nd St.). Additionally, 187 students who are residents of the Morgan Creek apartments, located just north of the Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. exit off I-75, will now be assigned to Clark.
Jennifer Ledford, parent of a second grader at Clark, attended the meeting to voice her support for the rezoning. She says this is the change she’s been looking for since before her son started kindergarten. “I moved to this area so my child could go to a neighborhood school with neighbors,” she says. “When you lose the geographic proximity to a school, you lose the investment in the community. I think the new plan is fabulous.”
But, not all parents agree.
“My grievance is that this reshuffling doesn’t address the elephant in the room, which is that Hunter’s Green is underperforming,” says Steven Hancz, a CLI resident whose seven-year-old twins are in first grade at Pride. “The school ranking has been dropping like a hot potato,” he says.
School grades for last year, which are based on test scores, rank Pride and Clark as “A” schools, Heritage as a “B,” and HGE as a “C.” While Hunter’s Green received an “A” grade for many years, it has been ranked a “C” the past two years. Pride has consistently been an “A” school.
School officials say the test scores of the students currently at HGE who live in New Tampa show that they are performing at an “A” level. They expect that the school grade will be an “A” once its attendance boundaries include students only from surrounding neighborhoods.
Elementary school grades for this school year (2016-17) will be released by the Florida Department of Education (FDoE) in July.
Lorraine Duffy Suarez, Hillsborough County Public Schools’ general manager for growth management, says the change is necessary. “We monitor growth, and we know how much growth is coming, and we have to accommodate it,” she says. “Pride was built on land that we bought from K-Bar Ranch. The school was sited there because we knew that development was coming. Now is the time.”
She says moving so many students should give the affected students a measure of reassurance. “The whole neighborhood is moving,” she explains. “You’re going to a different school, but you’re taking 562 of your friends with you.”
Not all Pride parents are angry. Some, such as Kellie Mulligan, an Arbor Greene resident whose three children have all attended Pride since kindergarten, are accepting it. Her youngest will be in fifth grade when the changes take effect. “I’m hoping she will be grandfathered in, but if her whole class and all her friends move, then I’m okay with that, too,” Mulligan says. “Honestly, I think the zoning makes sense.”
While many parents are at least accepting the change, they still have concerns they want addressed. Sigrun Ragnarsdottir is an Arbor Greene resident whose children attend Pride. As soon as she heard of the rezoning, she began researching all possible courses of action to stop it from happening, but hit dead ends. Now, she says she is embracing the change, but says she is still looking for answers.
“In the long run, I believe Hunter’s Green has a lot to offer the students,” she says, citing programs her kids don’t currently have, such as Hunter’s Green’s “Kindness Club” and garden plots with irrigation and soil available to teachers. “The question I’m still asking is, ‘What about busing?’”
With the school district ending so-called “courtesy busing” for middle and high school students this fall, elementary schools are expected to lose courtesy busing the following year, when this rezoning will take place (see story on next page). Anyone who lives less than two miles from the school will no longer be provided with a bus to school. Many Arbor Greene residents have a bus to Pride, but because Hunter’s Green is less than two miles for many of them, it is expected that there will be no bus to that school.
Ragnarsdottir also fears traffic will snarl coming out of Arbor Greene with residents waiting to turn left onto Cross Creek Blvd., then be backed up again as parents turn left onto Highland Oaks Blvd. to get to HGE. Other parents at the meeting expressed similar concerns, saying it will make traffic worse for everyone driving along the already busy Cross Creek Blvd. in the morning, and unsafe for those children who are walking or biking, as more are likely to do because of the end of courtesy busing.
“The school district says this will save money, but how much is a child’s life worth?,” Ragnarsdottir asks. “How much have they budgeted for lawsuits?”
All this adds up to a lot of changes for New Tampa parents, who are being hit with this school rezoning, the loss of middle and high school courtesy busing, plus the expected loss of elementary busing next year, and one more thing – new start and end times for all New Tampa schools (see story, next page).
Decision Day: May 16
Plans outlining the proposed new boundaries were released on the school district’s website on Mar. 21 and are available at http://www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/251/growth-management/resources/boundary/.
Comments from parents and the community were accepted at the meeting on March 30. If you did not attend and would still like to comment, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Changes may be made based on the many comments received before a final recommendation is made by school superintendent Jeff Eakins to the seven-member School Board. The Board is expected to consider the proposed recommendation — including any revisions made as a result of comments from the community — at its meeting on Tuesday, May 16.
Duffy Suarez says she understands the plan means a lot of changes, and that parents leaving Pride are the ones expressing the most frustration with the proposal. “We’re changing a lot of students, and I understand that,” she says. “They have a lot of pride in their Pride, but Pride can’t hold all the students who are going to come there.”