School starts on Wednesday: Look out, drivers, it's back to class for Marion's 43K students

·6 min read

The summer is over for Marion County's 43,000 students and 6,500 employees. The first day of the 2022-23 school year is Wednesday, and area officials want to remind parents to show patience as the gears slowly begin to turn.

Every year, school officials tell parents that school buses may be a few minutes late through the first week because drivers must put armbands on young students in the mornings so that officials know what bus to put them back on in the afternoon.

But one big worry that keeps many school officials up at night is that about half of Marion's school-age students ride the bus. That means more than 20,000 students will be standing along roadways, waiting for the bus to arrive.

2020: Marion school board approves Ina A. Colen Academy

2021: Marion charter high school could open with ninth grade in 2022-23

2022: Fordham Early Learning Academy (former Evergreen campus) to open in August

"The whole school year it's not going to be like any other day going to work," said Nancy Thrower, a Marion County School Board member. "We have to be vigilant. We all know how traffic has increased. Just take a breath and you will get there about as fast."

Every year, drivers are told to beware of law enforcement. Agencies will be out in full force monitoring school zones, waiting for speeders and looking for people not abiding by traffic laws in regards to school bus stops.

It has been nearly three months since the 2021-22 school year ended. So on Wednesday those familiar yellow school zone lights will again start flashing near 50 campuses all across Marion County, which is larger than Rhode Island.

School district spokesman Kevin Christian said the district projects that 43,000 students will attend Marion County Public Schools this year. Enrollment gradually climbs from the first day of school and then peaks in October. Usually about 38,000 students attend on the first day.

"We are excited for our entire team to be back on campus to greet students and start developing those relationships that are so important to student learning," Christian said. "With COVID restrictions primarily behind us, we look forward to a great year, including a brand new school, Fordham Early Learning Academy."

Christian also asked for "our community to be patient at the start of this year, especially the first two weeks."

"That’s when bus routes are better defined and we’re able to improve the accuracy of bus stop times each morning and afternoon," he noted.

Parents can also download the free “Here Comes the Bus” app to better pinpoint where their child’s bus is located in real time.

'Stagger Start' affects first-day enrollment on 50-plus campuses

There are several reasons the first day attendance is much lower than the projected figure. One main reason is "stagger start" for kindergarten. Staggered times gives students more personal time with their teacher to adjust to school.

Only one-third of each kindergarten class goes to school one of the first three days of school, either Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. On Monday, Aug. 15, all kindergarten students report to class.

Wednesday is the first day of school.
Wednesday is the first day of school.

That means each kindergarten teacher can meet with one-third of his or her class each day for the first three days. That gives those teachers time to assess each child, giving each teacher information on how to set up lesson planning.

As of late last week, the school district said of the estimated 3,000 teaching positions, there are still 150 vacancies.

New this year: Fordham Early Learning Academy opens for 4- and 5-year-olds

A year after Evergreen Elementary School closed its doors, the district created an early learning academy aimed at boosting literacy, while also promoting social-emotional learning and music.

Called the Fordham Early Learning Academy, the school will open Wednesday to about 72 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Officials plan to add first grade in the 2023-24 school year and second grade in 2024-25.

VPK students must be 4 on or before Sept. 1 of each year. Kindergarten students must be 5 on or before the same date.

Evergreen Elementary School, which was closed a year ago, is now the Fordham Early Learning Academy.
Evergreen Elementary School, which was closed a year ago, is now the Fordham Early Learning Academy.

The academy will operate as a choice program, meaning any appropriately aged student can apply to attend. As with any choice program, parents an guardians must provide transportation.

An expansion of the academy, located at 4000 W. Anthony Road near Ocala, may also include 3-year-old students in the future. The academy will seek input from student families to determine a school mascot and colors.

New charter school opens: Ina A. Colen Academy to hold its first day of classes

Also a new charter school, the Ina A. Colen Academy, will open its doors for the first time on Wednesday.

The school board unanimously approved the application for the new charter school two years ago. The school, which recently held its open house, was built by the family trust of On Top of the World developer Ken Colen.

The school falls under The Colen Family Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit entity. The school will launch as a K-6 school to 214 students. The goal is to add seventh grade in 2023-24 and eighth grade in 2024-25.

The Ina A. Colen Academy, Ocala's newest K-8 public charter school, held its dedication ceremony a few weeks ago.
The Ina A. Colen Academy, Ocala's newest K-8 public charter school, held its dedication ceremony a few weeks ago.

By 2026-27, officials hope to max out the K-8 enrollment at 862 students, and there are plans to add a high school.

Ocali Charter High School will open in August 2023, not this year

Another charter high school, Ocala Charter High School, will not open this year after all. The executive director of Clear Choice Academies, Inc., the company that oversees the Ocali charter middle and high schools, is Teecy Matthews.

She said a supply shortage was one factor that led to the postponement. The school will now open August 2023.

Matthews also noted that will also allow for more time to find a new home for a joint Ocali middle and high school campus.

Matthews also announced that the new principal for the high school is Elizabeth Brown, who served as Forest High School's principal last year.

Elizabeth Brown, the former principal at Forest High School, was named the new principal of Ocali Charter High School, which postponed its opening until August 2023.
Elizabeth Brown, the former principal at Forest High School, was named the new principal of Ocali Charter High School, which postponed its opening until August 2023.

New principals named at nearly one-third of Marion's 50-plus campuses

Around the district, 14 schools have new principals. Those, in alphabetical order by school, are:

  • Anthony Elementary School: Gay Street.

  • Dr. N.H. Jones Elementary School: Rob Hensel.

  • East Marion Elementary School: Sarah Dobbs.

  • Forest High School: Lamar Rembert.

  • Fort King Middle School: Michael Carter.

  • Harbour View Elementary School: Joy Baxley.

  • Howard Middle School: Suzette Parker.

  • Lake Weir Middle School: Jason Jacobs.

  • Marion Technical College: Gary Smallridge.

  • North Marion Middle School: Matt Johnson.

  • Romeo Elementary School: Jennifer Houle.

  • Shady Hill Elementary School: Anna Streater-Mcallister.

  • Sparr Elementary School: Rene Johnson.

  • Wyomina Park Elementary School: Victoria Hunt.

Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.

Fun facts

• 7 million square feet of space to care for 43,000 students

• 238 daily bus routes

• 3 million miles driven each year

• Piloting a new student ridership project to better track attendance of student bus riders

•  Incoming seventh graders must have Tdap immunization to attend classes

• All students, regardless of school or family income, can receive free meals, including breakfast and lunch

• Most schools operate at same times as last year, with a few exceptions

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Marion County, Florida public school classes return Wednesday