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Where Will They Go?

Alonso High School is jam-packed.

The situation is the product of the full-sprint expansion in northwest Hillsborough County –  its new housing developments, apartment complexes and townhomes sprouting like weeds on steroids.

But when students return to Alonso on Aug. 10 to begin the 2016-17 school year, there will be a newfound urgency and curiosity. Alonso is practically bursting at the seams, its new 12-classroom wing, expanded cafeteria and renovated main office necessary just to keep up with the explosive student-body growth.

Alonso principal Kenneth Hart projects 800 incoming ninth-graders, an unusually high number (Alonso graduated 660 seniors on June 10). On the books Alonso is expected to have an enrollment of 2,876 students, although Hart, drawing from experience of unanticipated consequences, said it’s more realistic to count on approximately 2,950 or more.

“However you cut it, it’s going to be a high number,’’ Hart said. “But the important thing to remember is we have anticipated it, we have prepared for it and we are ready to have a successful school year. It’s tight, yes, but we can handle it.

“If we don’t continue to grow, things will certainly be tolerable and acceptable. But how many students will you actually have? That’s the 64-million-dollar question.’’

And what about planning for the future?

Could it be time for a new high school in northwest Hillsborough County?

Westchase High School, anyone?

That is truly the $100-million question.

To acquire land and build a campus designed to accommodate about 2,000 students, it would require approximately $100-million. And that prompts at least two other questions:

Where is the land?

Where is the money?

“We do not at this moment have a parcel of land for a new high school,’’ said Susan Valdes, the Hillsborough County School District school board member for District 1, which encompasses Alonso and Sickles high schools. “And the state has not given us new construction dollars.

“But that doesn’t change the need. We’re going to need a new high school in this area, absolutely. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a way around that.’’

Valdes said she favors reworking school boundaries throughout the county, not as a quick fix, but as a thoughtful, mindful process that takes into account everyone’s best interests.

“There’s no doubt, doing something like that can be like herding cats,’’ Valdes said. “It’s making tough choices and tough decisions, but that’s where the leadership has to come in.

“It’s like going to the oral surgeon and getting your wisdom teeth pulled, all four at one time, one pain and that’s it. The whole district must be involved. Before we go out and bond ourselves into more land for another school, which I think will need to happen eventually, we must be certain we’re using our current resources to the maximum.’’

In the short term, where is the relief?

Even with its expansion Alonso is expected to operate at greater than 100 percent of its capacity. Neighboring Sickles High School, at about 2,250 students, is at 100 percent. A bit further north, Steinbrenner High School is touching the 100-percent mark at about 2,500 students.

“I have concerns when I see all the building of townhomes and apartments going up around the area,’’ said Tonya Sanchez, a resident of The Fords, whose son, James, is a rising junior at Alonso. “I don’t see how we’re going to get around not building one (a new high school). We have our temporary fix with the renovation at Alonso, but what if that isn’t enough? I think the school board might have to be more proactive.”

According to the Hillsborough County School District, there are no immediate plans to purchase land for a new northwest Hillsborough County high-school site. The district’s long-range work plan states that a new school will be needed in South Hillsborough County anywhere between the 2020-21 and 2024-25 school years.

“Right now, the model seems to be not to acquire more land, but to add on facilities to the current school,’’ Sickles principal Jake Russell said. “That’s what’s happening at Alonso. I think unless we all start growing by hundreds and hundreds of kids, we can make it work.’’

“As our schools grow and get more crowded, you’re always going to hear more complaints,’’ said Radcliffe resident Sue Vidmar, whose son, Justin, is a rising senior at Alonso. “I think if you’re not willing to be part of a solution, then you need to stop complaining. There are solutions to any issue.’’

And some are more palatable than others.

Changing the Boundaries

As Valdes said, this looks like the most logical short-term solution if it is carefully and thoughtfully implemented in a county-wide fashion.

Hillsborough County School Superintendent Jeff Eakins didn’t sound optimistic because, as he said last school year, “Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot of area to move, especially in our high schools.’’

But there are open seats throughout Hillsborough County.

Although Alonso, Sickles and Steinbrenner are packed, schools such as Freedom (79 percent of capacity), King (76), Armwood (74), Brandon (73), Chamberlain (72), Jefferson (72), Middleton (71), Spoto (70) seemingly have space.

Yet all but Jefferson lie across town, near or east of Interstate 275.

“I never want to say it, but it does have to be said because as good stewards of our tax dollars, we need to put kids where we have seats,’’ school board member Cindy Stuart said last year. “Maybe not tonight or tomorrow, but we can realize savings by putting children in the seats we have available before we start spending large amounts of money.’’

It would require creativity.

Retiring school board member Carol Kurdell said the district should redraw boundaries for the entire county, something that hasn’t occurred in more than a decade.

“You have to look at the whole county because the whole county is shifting,’’ Kurdell said last year. “I’ve said it for years … and of course nobody in administration ever wanted to tough it because it’s such an emotional issue. 

“It’s the only thing that makes sense to me. That will give you some relief. I know parents won’t be happy. Nobody will be happy. But at this point in time, we have empty seats in places that need to be filled. We’ve got schools that are running over.’’

But where does one start to change?

“I don’t really like it,’’ Vidmar said. “I think you should keep communities together. I think there are other alternatives.’’

Double Sessions

The words that no one wants to hear.

Alonso, which opened in 2001, and Sickles, which opened in 1997, each have had double sessions in their history.

Generally, the juniors and seniors begin the school day at sunrise until noon. The freshmen and sophomore go from noon until sunset. The mid-day transitions are challenging as are after-school activities such as athletics.

“It’s a last resort,’’ Hart said. “I had them as a student in New Jersey and also a teacher. I hated them. It’s a real juggling act and there are ways around everything. But definitely a last resort.’’

“We can find other solutions,’’ Sanchez said.

“I’ve always heard that double sessions were complete chaos,’’ Vidmar said. “I don’t think we should go that route. I’ve always felt if you have good teachers and a good administration, you can make things work.’’

Making Things Work

Alonso is a great test case – not so much for the future, but in how things were handled during the 2015-16 school year, when the $7-million construction project coincided with daily living.

From a practical standpoint Alonso lost about 40 student parking spaces. The cafeteria’s outdoor seating was shifted. Getting from place to place sometimes proved an adventure.
 
“All things considered, I think the administration handled it really well,’’ Sanchez said. “I don’t think anything was impacted that dramatically. Like a lot of things in life, sometimes you need to be patient. Sometimes, you need to find solutions.’’

Solutions were a way of life for Hart and his staff.

“The year was a constant adjustment,’’ Hart said. “It changed our patterns. It created some managerial supervisory situations, none we couldn’t overcome, but we didn’t plan for them.’’

Construction created the loss of an access sidewalk area, which made campus foot traffic more of a time-consuming activity.

Solution: At the 900 building, the southernmost part of Alonso’s campus, classes were dismissed two minutes early.

“Instead of the 9:30 bell, at 9:28, somebody rang an airhorn and that gave the 900 building folks an opportunity to get into the courtyard before the bell rang,’’ Hart said. “They could get from there to here more efficiently. It’s not something we really liked, but we had to do it and give the 600 kids in that building a chance to get from class to class.

“We were mindful of our passing times. To get from the cafeteria to the 900 building in five minutes, a bit of a stretch, you’ve got to be purposefully walking. Not all teenagers walk purposefully. Some will take liberties and stretch it as far as possible. So we rang a two-minute bell, a warning, a sign for some of them to hasten the pace a bit. I think once we get our sidewalk back, once we’re back in the normal routine, it will all be fine.’’

What will Alonso’s campus be like on Aug. 10, the first day of school?

“Things will be fine,’’ Hart said. “We have what we need. The educational program is sound. We are not going on split sessions. We are not anywhere near making that kind of decision.
“People really shouldn’t be concerned about any changes in the quality of the program, the environment, the safety, the passing in the classes, how lunch will be handled. We have prepared for this.’’

Unless growth suddenly vanishes, Alonso and neighboring high schools will need to prepare for more eventualities.

Maybe a new high school isn’t realistic – yet – but the growth will continue to demand creative solutions.

“That’s why we’re here,’’ Hart said. “But whatever decisions we make, we always have to keep the integrity of the educational program and the welfare of all the students as our guiding principles.’’

By Joey Johnston; Cover and Feature Photos by James Broome Photography

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