TAMPA — The coach bus lurched to a halt, its fourth- and fifth-grade riders suddenly at the windows, cameras in hand.
Up rose Evangeline R. Best, clad in a black "I ♥ East Tampa" T-shirt, thrusting her arm toward the window, the bus, microphone in hand. "This," she said, "is what I'm talking about."
Best was pointing to a heap of old mattresses and sofas dumped by the side of a road near Williams Park in East Tampa. Illegal dumping, a hindrance to redevelopment that the children had been warned to look for minutes earlier. The students grimaced.
"You hear me use the word redevelop," said Best, chairwoman of the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership. "What we're trying to do is make East Tampa look better … and we need your help."
It was Tuesday morning, and 30 students from a summer program at Potter Elementary in East Tampa were on a guided tour of their own lower-income neighborhood. A tour of Midtown in St. Petersburg, which community activists here see as something of a model for rejuvenating East Tampa, followed two days later.
Each student came prepared with a disposable camera and a simple mission: to help come up with ideas on how to bring positive change to their community and to learn something about it in the process.
That ended up being easy. The hard part? Not using all their film in the first hour.
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The summer program, named the Connect 4Success Project, focuses on contextual learning, such as having a businessperson teach a math lesson or, in this case, going on a bus trip around Tampa rather than just reading about it.
Valerie H. Goddard, the program's director, said she hopes to expand the scope of the project next school year. Principal Tracye Brown said she is on board.
"A lot of time, the boys and girls are in the community, but they're not a part of the community," Brown said. "We want very much to be a part of the community, and these are the first steps toward making that a reality."
The six-week program culminated in this week's trips, from which the students will select their favorite photographs and then write an essay about them for their final project.
So on Tuesday, the students received their disposable cameras and got to work. They could be persuaded to sit quietly and walk in a single-file line when disembarking, but of all the rules they had to follow, one that posed a frequent problem.
"Two pictures per stop," their teacher, Emily White, said.
"If you guys go picture-crazy, we're not going to have any left to take!"
The students had much to photograph. In their own neighborhood, they saw the good (a restored retention pond with a scenic walking path and a new police substation), the bad (abandoned storefronts and rusted car lots) and the ugly (the pile of sofas and debris).
For some of the students, it was eye-opening. "Even though I live in East Tampa, I really don't get to see every part of it," said Mahogany Coy, 10, a fifth-grader.
The fledgling photographer didn't mind two days on the road, either. "It is so fun," she said.
"Like paparazzi!" added her classmate, Demetrick Green, 10. "It's a great way to learn."
Coy agreed. "It's much better than just sitting in a classroom with paper and pencil," she said.
But it was more than a mere field trip, a fun way to spend a few summer days.
"This is your neighborhood," White told them. "It's time to take ownership of it."
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The trip continued Thursday in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood, a major focus of redevelopment in the city. It was exciting for another reason, too: No fewer than 11 students said they could not recall having ever visited St. Petersburg.
There, they posed for pictures while touring a resplendent public garden and a historic theater restored as an arts institute. At an old train station transformed as the St. Petersburg Clay Co., they marveled at a pottery demonstration.
The photographs ceased only when the film ran out.
Back in Tampa on Friday, the students brainstormed, discussing a simple question: What can we bring back here?
It's a matter they wouldn't have thought to consider a week ago.
"Now they're proud of where they live," Goddard said. "They have a sense of belonging, and that's important for them to see hope and a future."
In interviews, the students said they liked Midtown's neat appearance — with uniform landscaping and fresh coats of paint — and its kid-friendly vibe. Back home, they suggested cleaning up the streets and building more parks, hiring more police and cracking down on crime.
Jordan Meeks, 10, a fifth-grader, said it gave him hope for his own neighborhood.
"East Tampa is almost there," he said.
Thomas Kaplan can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or firstname.lastname@example.org.