ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Our area’s top-rated and fastest-growing school district began the new year Monday with two brand new schools: Pine Island Academy and Tocoi Creek High School.
Both are welcome sights for a county dealing with overcrowded schools, but opening one from scratch is a challenge. For 34-year veteran teacher Debbie O’Steen, this is another chance to transform lives.
“My paycheck is when I see students be successful. when they walk across that stage and get their standard diploma. When they call ‘Ms. O’Steen, I’m an attorney now!,” O’Seen said.
O’Steen is among the teachers who welcomed more than 1,300 students to Tocoi Creek on Monday.
While the school will relieve overcrowding from Nease High School, Tocoi Creek Principal Jay Willets said this is so much more than simply opening a new school.
“If anybody can just kind of think back to their high school, and their high school memories, that’s what we’re building right now,” Willets said. “That to me, that’s special, and we get a chance to do that.”
These new classrooms come with state-of-the-art technology. No more overhead projectors. Now there are touchscreens with surround sound. There’s also a new safety feature, when the doors close, they lock automatically.
Three of the five buildings on campus are open now. The gym and performing arts center will open at a later time.
“She’s a little nervous; definitely has her mask on. That’s something she felt was important, as do I,” said Chrissy Eisen, whose daughter is attending Tocoi Creek. “She’s here for the Robotics Academy. “We were excited, came on Friday, got to tour the school. It looks really beautiful! So even though it’s not all the way done, it looks really good.”
Even though school hasn’t officially started yet, O’Steen said that in a way, this already feels like a family.
“We’re all here for the students. It’s not about us,” she said. “That’s when you are going to give your best to your students and they’re going to see that and they’re going to trust you. And they’re going to want to do their best. They’re going to want to learn.”
The fun of the school year will definitely get off to a running start. The first football game will be on Friday, and the first pep rally, too.
More than 40,000 students went back to the classroom on Monday in St Johns County.
Middle school students start first -- at 7:30 a.m.
“There are still challenges this year, but what we found in the last year and a half, students like coming to school, and that’s a good thing, and we have teachers that they don’t want them to stay at home, they want them here, and that comes out in the relationship piece,” said Fruit Cove Middle School Principal Kelly Jacobson.
And at 8:25 a.m., elementary school gets started.
“Very excited,” said Kevin Mcabee, who has a child in the third grade. “My daughter was very excited for her first day today, so it’s a lot of fun and a little nervous about COVID and everything.”
And last but not least, the high schoolers start school at 9:20 a.m.
About 2,400 St. Johns County students are expected to ride the bus to one of 17 elementary schools, seven academies, seven middle schools and eight high schools. The district, like most, is dealing with a shortage of bus drivers, but they expect all routes will be covered. Anyone with questions on bus issues should call their hotline at 904-547-7810.
Face masks are not required on buses or on campus, but they are strongly encouraged. For more information about the district’s COVID-19 plan and other policies go to stjohns.k12.fl.us.