Orange County schools debut 6 new campuses

Orange County schools debut – Six new public schools will open in Orange County when classes start Monday, including three that were the subject of fierce debate before they were built.

The new schools include Windermere High School, the school district’s 20th traditional high school.

It was built to provide relief to jam-packed West Orange High School, which finished the past school year with more than 4,200 students, making it the second-largest high school in Florida.

Plans to build the new Windermere High had been under way for more than four years.

But work was delayed when it became a flash point between residents who feared the school would bring unwelcome noise and traffic to what was designated a rural area and those who argued the campus was desperately needed in that fast-growing section of the county.

The fight spawned lawsuits, acrimony between the Orange County Commission and the Orange County School Board and, eventually, a compromise that got work started on the site at Ficquette Road and State Road 535.

“It’s more than exciting,” said Amaris Delapena, whose daughter will be in ninth grade at Windermere.

“It’s a big relief for all of us.”

There also are two new middle schools, two new elementary schools and a new kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school in downtown Orlando’s Parramore neigborhood.

Seven existing schools — Carver Middle School and six elementary schools — got replacement campuses or extensive renovations.

Altogether, the district will debut more than $400 million and almost 2 million square feet of new construction, said Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, facilities that will be “jewels in their communities.”

The district’s construction boom stems in large part from continued enrollment growth, with 2,600 new students expected this year for a total kindergarten-to-12th-grade population that will top 200,000 students.

The growth has been especially heavy in the eastern, western and southern parts of the county, which is why there are new schools opening near Windermere, MetroWest, Avalon Park and Lake Nona.

But the district is also working to renovate or replace older schools. And in the neighborhoods near downtown Orlando, it is consolidating smaller, aging schools into larger, new K-8 campuses.

The first of these opens in Parramore on Monday, the OCPS Academic Center for Excellence, or ACE.

The new school, at North Parramore Avenue and West Amelia Street, will be the first district school in the historically black neighborhood since two all-black schools closed in 1970 and 1971 as part of court-ordered integration efforts.

Since then, children living in Parramore have attended school in other neighborhoods.

The campus features a health clinic, Boys & Girls Club, track, a soccer club and gymnasium.

The new school also will include a preschool program paid for by hotelier Harris Rosen. He’s also paying for college scholarships for students who live in the school’s attendance zone and go on to attend Jones High School.

But as it opened the new K-8 school, the district closed two other older elementary schools — Fern Creek in Colonialtown, which opened in 1947, and Grand Avenue in Holden Heights, which opened in 1926.

Both were small, tight-knit places with lots of parent and community support, and advocates objected to their shuttering.

Patrice Williams toured ACE with her 8-year-old daughter, Arrihana Gandy, on Wednesday.

Williams said she worried when she first heard Fern Creek was closing and her daughter was transferring to a larger school with much older students.

But she said the new campus has advantages. It’s a short walk or bike ride from Arrihana’s grandmother’s home. And after seeing it, Williams said she’s confident the younger students will be kept separate from the middle-grade ones.

“It was cool,” said Arrihana, who will start third grade on Monday. “The cafeteria was super big, and my teacher is super fun.”

In east Orange, the new Timber Springs Middle School will cut the population at Avalon Middle School, which last year had about 900 more students than it was meant to handle.

The new school, though welcomed by parents and educators, became a source of dispute in 2015, as some neighbors were upset the school district wanted to build a middle school on a site zoned for a smaller elementary school.

Eventually, the district bought more land and won approval.

At a “sneak peak” of the school offered last week, throngs of people came to get a look at the “awesome” facility, said Adela Morciego-Rivera, president of the new school’s PTSA.

“We had to do tours of 50 at a time,” said Morciego-Rivera, whose daughter will be a sixth grader.

The new Innovation Middle School also opens this month, providing relief for Lake Nona Middle, which had more than 2,100 students on a campus built for about 1,200.

The new Laureate Park Elementary School, also in the Lake Nona area, will help crowded conditions at Eagle Creek Elementary. Westpointe Elementary School is to provide relief for MetroWest Elementary School.

Both Eagle Creek and MetroWest had student enrollments about 400 more than their capacities.

For all the debuting schools, there is the excitement of a bright new campus and the eagerness to create a sense of school pride, despite a lack of history.

At Windermere High, Principal Doug Guthrie said students, parents and staff seem happy to move beyond the label of “relief school for West Orange.”

With furniture and equipment moved in, and more than 100 teachers hired, the school just needs its nearly 2,000 students to fill the campus, Guthrie said.

Without them, he said, “It doesn’t feel like school.”

lpostal@orlandosentinel.com and  anmartin@orlandosentinel.com