Lee district aims to fill up soon-to-open schools, build more to address East Zone growth

East Zone student population growth has grown by 66% since 2001, according to…

Lee district aims to fill up soon-to-open schools, build more to address East Zone growth 1
Lee district aims to fill up soon-to-open schools, build more to address East Zone growth 2

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Gateway High School groundbreaking

Gateway High School groundbreaking

Pamela McCabe and Andrew West, Fort Myers News-Press

The fast-paced growth of students in the eastern side of Lee County has led to overcrowded schools and the placement of more portables, or temporary classrooms, than anywhere else in the school system.

Often, these issues are brought up by Lee County school board member Gwyn Gittens.

“My purpose is to be transparent, to educate you and then to ask you to use your voice to help change the inequity. It is inequity,” Gittens said during a March 9 school board meeting, where she used her end-of-meeting comments to explain East Zone growth and its unique needs to the public.

Using data supplied by the school district, she showed how the East Zone’s student population has grown by 66% since 2001. In the same decade, the South Zone grew by 18% while the West Zone saw a 16% increase in students, Gittens said.

Districtwide, 3% of students attend classes in portables, but 79% of them are in use in the East Zone, she said.

“This is why I ask questions. I’m not trying to be a pain in the butt, but I’m trying to do what’s right for children. And when I’m constantly told I’m in the weeds, stay in your lane, stop asking so many questions, this is why,” Gittens said.

ICYMI: Gwen Gittens asks Gov. DeSantis to investigate Lee school district, board and superintendent

More: Gateway High’s portable campus opens Monday as construction hammers on at permanent site

Lee County innovation school: Treeline Avenue site announced as school’s future home

District officials have pointed to a lack of funding to support growth projects, explaining how state funding to build education facilities was reduced during the recession and has yet to return to normal rates.

It was the purpose behind the half-cent sales tax, which was narrowly passed by 51.5% of the voters in 2018. The tax earmarks funds to build new schools, maintain older facilities and enhance schoolhouse technology. 

Of the $163.4 million it has raised in the past two years, the district has spent about $93.2 million. 

  • $31.5 million on maintenance projects
  • $29.2 million on safety and security efforts
  • $16 million on technology enhancements
  • $16.5 million on construction projects

“This new funding source allows us to build the schools we need to meet the growth challenges we face not just today but into the future,” explained Greg Adkins, the superintendent of Lee County schools in a news statement. “It also helps us make our schools secure, and it helps us put technology in the hands of our students to meet their needs and prepare them for the world tomorrow.”

Although the sales tax has led to work countywide, much of it is earmarked in the East Zone.

The long-awaited innovation lab school tied to Florida Gulf Coast University will be built along Treeline Avenue, which is part of the East Zone, and the district is scheduled to bring a new elementary school to Lehigh. 

Already, sales tax money has helped build out a standalone pre-K center at James Stephens International Academy in Fort Myers, added a new building to Lehigh Senior High School, constructed Gateway High School’s permanent home and gave Lehigh Acres Middle School a new address.

But almost as soon as the middle school facility opens, it’s going to have to be expanded by 12 classrooms because it is being built too small.

By the way: Lee County to push virtual learners back to brick-and-mortar next year, cancels Home Connect

More: Initial plans for a pre-K to eighth-grade school in Estero reviewed by Lee school board

Switching up plans in Lehigh Acres

For years, the 31-acre site near Sunrise Boulevard and Richmond Avenue in Lehigh Acres had been billed as an opportunity to create a new elementary and middle school, alleviating the growth pains felt in the East Zone. 

But officials pivoted from that plan after work began on the project in February. It was then that a decision was made to move Lehigh Acres Middle, a nearly 40-year-old facility, into the new facility.

The move would help fill the new building up right away while giving the district time to rehab the older building and potentially merge it with nearby Veterans Park Academy for the Arts to build a 3,000 student school.

The problem was the new middle school facility on Sunrise wasn’t going to be big enough, and a plan was hatched to expand it by the necessary 264 student stations while the nearby elementary school is built. 

More: Lehigh Middle’s move to new building shifts plans to address overcrowded schools

According to the superintendent, the middle school construction project had a strict schedule in place with subcontractors coming in at certain times to complete the job.

“When we were having that discussion, a lot of that work has already been done on that particular site and subcontractors gone,” Adkins told the school board during a Feb. 22 meeting.

Adkins said it would not be cost effective to bring those workers back, and it wasn’t clear whether the contractor could book them back into the schedule without delaying the project.

Instead, the district thought it would be “more efficient” to complete the expansion at the same time the elementary school, known as “J” in board documents, was being built, Adkins said.

“You could use that contractor to plan the schedule for building that addition and also building that building, the ‘J’ elementary school,” he said.

More: Lehigh Acres Middle might take over under-construction school campus in 2021

Despite the smaller footprint, the district has said no portables will be used at the new campus, and incoming enrollment will be capped to ensure the new facility isn’t automatically over capacity.

The district also wants to fill up the newly constructed Gateway High right away, skewing from the recent of trend of adding only one new class of freshmen each year at new high schools.

Filling up Gateway High right away

Clayton Simmons, the executive director of school development for high schools, said relief is needed at the district’s two largest East Zone high schools: Lehigh and Riverdale.

“We need to allow more kids in (at Gateway) just so we can help out the other schools because the East Zone is an area that’s just growing dramatically,” Simmons said.

The nearly complete Gateway High will have room for up to 2,009 student stations, or about 1,800 students, at the 55.6-acre site near State Road 82 and Griffin Drive.

For next year, though, the plan is to keep enrollment under 1,500, said Principal Neketa Watson.

“I saw Bonita (Springs High School), and I saw how they opened up grade level by grade level, so in the beginning I was hopeful, but when I was definitely told, ‘Hey, this has been a plan to open up full out,’ I was definitely in support of that and I’m excited,” Watson said.

While the actual enrollment could change between now and August, April data from the open enrollment period show that 1,275 students are already enrolled for the 2021-22 school year.

Lee district aims to fill up soon-to-open schools, build more to address East Zone growth 3

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See a time lapse video of the first wall going up at Gateway High School

Workers put up the first wall of Building A for the new Gateway High School on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. There are 93 wall panels, and the crew can lift about 15 per day.

Amanda Inscore, AINSCORE@NEWS-PRESS.COM

This includes:

  • 600 freshmen
  • 550 sophomores (including the school’s current 445 freshmen who attend school at a portable campus at Lehigh Senior High School)
  • 125 juniors

At this time no seniors have signed up for Gateway High, but the district has placed a 200-student limit should rising 12th-graders decide to transfer.


To match up with the student growth, the school’s employee base will grow quickly, too.

Today, the school has about 50 workers, including about 30 teachers. While student enrollment will drive the hiring needs, Watson predicts a need for an additional 100 teachers and staff by August.

The feedback from her students, coaches and teachers is also positive, Watson said: ‘We’re excited and prepared for a full campus.”

Pamela McCabe covers education for The News-Press. Connect with her at pmccabe@gannett.com.

Lee district aims to fill up soon-to-open schools, build more to address East Zone growth 4

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