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New Pasco school year sees big changes

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— A surprise awaited fifth-grader Gema Hernandez when she arrived at Cox Elementary School’s meet-the-teacher day last week.

Fourth- and fifth-graders at Cox will be in school an extra 50 minutes for the 2014-15 academic year, which begins Monday. School officials have tried to let parents and students know, but not everyone got word. Gema was among those who learned less than a week before the start of school.

“My reaction was, ‘What? Are we crazy in the school?’ ” said Gema, 11.

Cox is one of three schools in Pasco County that extended the school day 50 minutes for fourth- and fifth-graders to meet a new state requirement for schools that were in the lowest-performing 300 in Florida on reading scores. The others are Gulfside Elementary in Holiday and Lacoochee Elementary.

The law said the schools must add one hour of reading beyond the normal school day. Pasco already kept students in kindergarten through third-grade in school more than an hour beyond what the state required, so no additional time was needed for them.

To get the fourth- and fifth-graders the right amount of time at the three schools, though, required the extra 50 minutes.

The extended school day for Cox, Lacoochee and Gulfside is just one of many changes the school district will see when students report for class Monday.

Schrader Elementary in New Port Richey is opening its new building after a reconstruction project replaced most of the old school.

Pasco High and Pasco Middle are launching Cambridge programs that will provide a more challenging curriculum to high-performing students. School officials have been excited about that because parents and students in east Pasco County have wanted a rigorous academic program similar to the International Baccalaureate programs at Land O’ Lakes High in central Pasco and at Gulf High in west Pasco.

Three new charter schools are opening. They are the Learning Lodge Academy in Port Richey, Classical Preparatory Charter School in Shady Hills and Pepin Academies Pasco in New Port Richey.

Reducing school bus problems the first two weeks of school has become a major focus for the district’s transportation department. A call center will let parents know whether buses are running on schedule or whether a particular student boarded the bus.

Morning hours for the call center will be 6:30 to 10 a.m., and afternoon hours will be 2 to 6 p.m.

Three phone numbers have been set up, one for each of the area codes in Pasco County. The numbers are (813) 794-2500; (727) 774-2500; and (352) 524-2500.

Several schools in Pasco have new principals.

Among those is Claudia Steinacker, a former assistant principal at Connerton Elementary who has taken over the top job at Cox Elementary. It’s quite a contrast because 4-year-old Connerton is one of the district’s newest schools and 88-year-old Cox is one of the oldest.

“There is so much heritage in this school,” Steinacker said.

Cox also has just 460 students, roughly half the number at Connerton.

About 65 percent of Cox families are Hispanic, and many of the parents don’t speak English, so school staff members often serve as translators.

A major focus of communication — whether parents speak English, Spanish or both — has been that longer day for fourth- and fifth-graders. The school already tried to spread the word, even holding an evening informational meeting for parents, but fifth-grade teacher Tamisha Bennett said she was finding many families still did not know.

“The parents’ biggest concern is how (students) get home,” Bennett said.

Once the plans for dealing with that are explained, they usually seem fine with the longer day, she said.

Gema Hernandez was still processing it all during meet-the-teacher day, but she was excited Bennett would be her teacher for fifth grade. Bennett was her third-grade teacher.

Gema said school is “kind of fun,” and some of her favorite things are physical education, art and music.

For Ariel Garcia, a 6-year-old first-grader, the best thing about school is the adult standing in front of the classroom.

“I like being with my teachers,” Ariel said.

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