By B.C. Manion
The air was charged with a sense of excitement as children and adults gathered under a big tent last week at a site on Sunlake Boulevard to celebrate the groundbreaking of Imagine School at Land O’ Lakes.
“Welcome to what we thought would never happen,” said Principal Kathy Helean, recounting efforts that began in 2005 to create a charter school and build a home for it.
“It’s a glorious day, isn’t it?” said another speaker, Rod Sasse, executive vice president for Imagine Schools in Florida.
Helean compared the school’s efforts to create a school, find a site and line up a contractor to the children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could.”
“In the beginning, there was only the idea of having students with a seat on this train. The engine was filled with our school’s governing board, a few parents and Imagine.”
“Once we got our charter approved by the school board of Pasco County, we started loading children on this train. We still hadn’t found a permanent home.
“Imagine (at) Land O’ Lakes opened in 2008, with 424 students on board, and teachers, parents and community members supporting – as we continued searching for a place for our school.
“Parents started telling other parents about Imagine and more students got onto the Imagine train, but still we needed to get these students into a permanent school building.
“We had several locations appear promising, but they didn’t work out. Some families became disheartened, but most decided to stay on the train.”
“And then we found Sunlake Boulevard and we found Ryan (Companies US Inc.); it seemed too good to be true, but we hoped this would be the one. This is the one, we made it,” she said, to an enthusiastic crowd.
It took four tries to find a site that would work, Helean said. The others did not work out because of traffic issues.
Imagine at Land O’ Lakes is a publicly funded charter school, operating under the authority of Pasco County Schools. Students are selected for the school through a lottery process.
Helean said she began writing the charter application for Imagine Land O’ Lakes in 2005 because she believed “all families deserve to have a choice in their child’s education.”
At Imagine at Land O’ Lakes, “the philosophy is that the parent is the one that knows the child best. We’re here to assist the parent.
“We focus not only on academics, but on character development and parent involvement.”
The school has a 95 percent re-enrollment rate.
The new 43,000-square-foot school will have a capacity for 728 students, but it is only authorized currently for 584 under its charter agreement with the school district.
The school will have 38 classrooms and a 6,000-square-foot multipurpose room, for lunch, gym and other activities. The site has ample play spaces, including a 1.2-acre play field.
Amanda Battistoni, president of the school’s board, said the new school “gives parents the security of knowing we are a permanent fixture in this community. We’re not leaving.”
Besides helping children who attend Imagine, the school also lessens the potential for overcrowding at other area schools, Battistoni said.
Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri was among the dignitaries attending the July 29 groundbreaking ceremony.
The commissioner, a former professor at Pasco-Hernando Community College, said she had visited Imagine and liked what she saw there.
The school has a child-centered curriculum, Mulieri said. “I was also impressed with the joy of learning on the children’s faces.”
As an educator, she’s pleased that Imagine is getting a beautiful new facility, Mulieri said.
“As a commissioner, I am delighted to see jobs in Pasco County. I’m delighted to see a new building come in.”
Liska Garcia Rovi, who teaches middle school Spanish at the school, she’s excited about the notion of having a permanent school home.
“Right now, we’re in an office building and there’s a little bit more separation between one thing and another,” she said.
Christine Gegan, whose 7-year-old son, Quintin, attends the school, said she’s happy that families attending the school will have a place “to plant our feet and solidify the children’s education. Being in the temporary building, it felt a little uncertain.”
Gegan said she’s thrill with the education her son is receiving.
Students work with teachers in clusters, working with the same teachers for three years, Gegan said.
The teachers really get to know the children.
“They focus on each individual child,” Gegan said. “The families that go there are just a delight. There’s a real sense of community. Most of the parents that go there want to be involved with their children’s education.”
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