School district aims to complete Nease High School addition by start of school year

Rampant growth will continue to be a challenge for county schools, Forson says


Current construction plans call for the Nease High School addition to be completed and ready for use by the start of the coming 2017-2018 school year, administrators say.

At a town hall meeting held May 1 at Valley Ridge Academy and hosted by District 4 School Board Member Kelly Barrera, Superintendent Tim Forson said the new building will house the high school’s hospitality academy and media center as well as administrative office and classroom/lab space.

“Those of you with children at Nease, they are going to school in a construction site,” Forson told attendees in a wide-ranging presentation that covered numerous education topics. “But in the end, the benefit will be worth it.”

Forson, who became superintendent in January, joined the St. Johns County School District in 1980. In 1982, he observed, Nease’s unique design – whereby students must travel outside between classes to access individual classroom buildings – or "pods" — was considered revolutionary, and one that would allow for future growth.

“We would not design a high school like that today,” Forson said. “We have too many concerns about safety and security.”

New Principal Lisa Kunze agreed. At a Rotary Club meeting held at Nease April 27, Kunze told attendees that the school’s distinctive design creates challenges for both students and staff alike.

“This is a very open campus – it’s a battle to maintain safety,” Kunze said. “The new building will include a fence so we can secure the building and better monitor who’s coming and going.”

Kunze said the addition had a target move-in date of Aug. 1, or two days before teachers are scheduled to return for the new year. The first day of school is slated for Aug. 10. In addition to the hospitality academy and media center, Kunze said, the addition will also house the school’s engineering academy as well as 13 classrooms and four computer labs. Relocating those programs and school administrative offices to the new building will enable two of Nease’s existing pod buildings to be renovated for use as classrooms.

Despite the addition and renovations, however, space will still be at a premium at Nease, Kunze acknowledged. According to school district figures, Nease had 2,193 students at the start of the current school year. That figure is now 2,350, Kunze said, and by the fall Nease’s enrollment is projected to top 2,500 students.

“We still need to keep portable classrooms due to the anticipated increase in enrollment,” she said.

What’s more, Nease’s enrollment is only expected to grow as new neighborhoods are constructed on 210 west of US1, and a K-8 school currently under construction in Nocatee is expected to send students to Nease as well.

Continued Growth

Nease is not alone. School officials acknowledged that growth is one of the major challenges facing Florida’s top-rated public school district.

“Our school district is very dynamic,” Barrera said. “It’s always growing and changing and evolving.”

Forson agreed. “Who we were at the beginning of this school year is not who we are today,” he said. “It’s going to change over time and we have to embrace that change and respond to it.”

Standing in the Valley Ridge Academy auditorium, Forson noted that the K-8 school was built for 1,100 students. Two and a half years after opening, the school’s enrollment is now at 1,600, with 29 portable classrooms in use.

“I would love to be able to say, ‘We’ve got the next school ready to go and that’s not going to happen again,’” Forson said. “It’s going to happen again.”

Keeping up with the rampant pace of development is a challenge, he continued. “In August, I took a drive through (Nocatee’s) Twenty Mile,” Forson said. “I had no idea it was already as developed as it was.”

To adapt to the continued growth, the district is now planning for schools with larger enrollments than in the past.

“We have moved from building our schools for 1,100 students to 1,500 students – because we know we’ll fill them probably within the first two years,” Forson said.

At the town hall meeting, Forson and school administrators discussed the complexities of planning and securing funding for new schools. Noting that the district’s five-year plan includes a new high school in the Twin Creeks area, Forson said that project is currently unfunded and at least three to four years down the road. In the meantime, he said, the school district remains focused on providing students with an educational experience tailored to meet the needs of each individual student.

“We’re moving toward 40 schools – we’re not that little small town district any more,” said Forson, noting that the school district was the county’s biggest employer. “But while we know as an organization we’re getting bigger, we have to focus on the ability to think small, for our kids’ sake.”