Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Education

Blanton Elementary to mark 50th birthday

Alisa Robinson started teaching at Blanton Elementary in 1979.

In those days, the school had more than 1,000 students, lots of school buses and "beaucoup" portables, she said. So many that the staff came up with street names for the lanes connecting them. Robinson was hired by Blanton's first principal, Mary Jenkins, and has worked under six principals.

"I have seen a lot of things as time has progressed," she said.

As the school gets ready to celebrate its 50th birthday on May 4, the early childhood education teacher said she looks forward to reminiscing about how far the school has come.

"It's going to be interesting to see some of the people from way back when come here," she said.

Established on Jan. 21, 1963, Blanton started out as a school with 12 teachers and 329 students. Out front, 54th Avenue N was a "sleepy two-lane road with drainage ditches along each side," according to the school district's official history book. The campus had only four buildings.

Enrollment shot up to more than 1,170 students in the 1990s and then slimmed down to about 598 this year because of changes in school zoning policies, said Debi Turner, Blanton's longtime principal. Today, 54th Avenue N is a major four-lane thoroughfare. The campus now houses 10 buildings and seven portables.

When Turner started working at Blanton as an assistant principal in 1996, the school did not have much in the way of greenery.

Now, there is a vegetable garden where students can plant something for their birthdays. Turner had Blanton's buildings painted blue and added wind chimes.

"I want a school that looks like a park," she said. "This community may not be as safe as other communities, so I want children to have a sanctuary."

Blanton's population has changed over the years, too. Students from low-income households have increased from 62 percent, when Turner started, to 86 percent.

The staff also has noticed that the economic downturn has caused a high instance of what educators call "mobility" among Blanton families: Out of nearly 600 students, more than 200 came and went last school year, Turner said.

But staffers worked hard over the years, and Blanton became a model for other high-poverty schools — even after a dark chapter in 2002 when the school became one of the first in Pinellas to earn an F in the state's then-new grading system.

Turner couldn't believe it until the TV trucks rolled up. The news had her wiping away tears. But a day later, teachers and staffers threw her a surprise party in the library. They got her to show up by telling her that the library was on fire. That day, Turner recalled, teachers signed a contract to never let the school's grade slip again. The following year, Blanton was an A school. And the year after.

That attitude continues, Turner said. "It is a hard school, but we have fun."

In a recent "climate survey" conducted by Pinellas schools, 90 percent of Blanton's staff say the school has high morale and 97 percent say they look forward to coming to work every day — among the highest ratings in the district.

Lori Plomatos, a secretary and bookkeeper who started working at Blanton in 1999, will be the first to say that everyone's like a family.

All three of her daughters attended Blanton, and her oldest teaches at the school.

"It's a warm and cozy place to be," Plomatos said. "It's a pleasure to come to work. You know you are going to be supported because everybody supports everybody."

   
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