If walls could talk, the two-story, red-brick building on Martin Luther King Boulevard would have a lot to say.
There are 90 years of storied history stashed inside the structure, which opened as Dade City Grammar School after winter break on Jan. 3, 1927, and which now is known as Rodney B. Cox Elementary School.
It's a time capsule of sorts, traversing through 11 administrators, numerous teachers and thousands of students. Fathers and mothers have gone to school here. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, too.
The school is a community hub, having evolved from the all-white grammar school residents first petitioned for to serving one of the most diverse and poorest populations in Pasco County.
"Ask anybody here and they'll tell you it's all about the kids," said music teacher Kathy Wheeler, who is organizing a 90th anniversary celebration that will take place Sunday, complete with a spaghetti dinner. "We're like a family."
"It's a warm environment," said pre-kindergarten teacher and former student Rita Mitchell. "It's a place to build strength, confidence. To feel love. Give love."
According to an article published in the Dade City Banner, on the day the school opened, students and residents gathered at the entrance to salute a United States flag presented by the Gordon M. Crothers Post of the American Legion,
Among them was former Pasco Clerk of Court Stanley Burnside. The youngest of 12 in his family, he was in first grade at the time and walked 12 blocks home for lunch each day because there was no cafeteria at the school. Now 96, he is believed to be the oldest former student.
The school was for grades 1 to 8 and housed 17 classrooms that had desks with state-of-the-art swivel chairs, slate chalkboards and tall windows that allowed in natural light.
"My first-grade teacher was my older sister Myrtle. My second-grade teacher was my older sister Essie Mae," Burnside said. "After all these years, it's still a beautiful building. It's remarkable how it has held up."
It was meant to, said former teacher and lifelong Dade City resident Ginny Geiger, 73.
"It's well constructed. The walls are over a foot thick," said Geiger, who delved into the school's history during her 30-year tenure. "It was made like a fort."
Well, half a fort.
In the original designs, the school replicated an Italian square with a courtyard positioned between two buildings, Geiger said. But money ran out, nixing the back building. "Then the war came along, and that stopped almost all construction, with supplies going to the war effort."
Former Pasco superintendent Thomas Weightman attended the school in seventh and eighth grades, after his family moved from Pennsylvania in 1947. His mother, Ruth, taught second grade. On occasion, he stood in for the physical education teacher because substitute teachers were scarce.
"I have fond memories of the time," Weightman said, adding that by then, a metal Quonset hut served as the cafeteria. "Dade City was smaller then. The school was small. You knew everybody, and the teachers knew everybody."
In 1968, the school became a safe haven for Monica Russ, a former student who now works at Cox as a guidance secretary, parent involvement assistant and volunteer coordinator.
Russ enrolled a few years after desegregation, when her older sister, LaNita Plummer, who is now a lawyer, became the school's first African-American student.
One of Russ' teachers smoked in the classroom — kept an ashtray in her top desk drawer, Russ said — and students grooved out to the theme song from Hawaii Five-0 at end-of-the-year dance contests, which she won several times.
"There were challenges. Crazy mind-sets. But for the most part, it was a good experience," said Russ, recalling the time a favorite teacher, Verna Ross, admonished students who wouldn't sit next to "the black girl."
"As a kid, it felt great to have somebody stand up for you," she said, adding that then-principal Rodney B. Cox, for whom the school was named after he died in 1973, provided a calming influence.
"He was a giant. He was all over campus," Russ said. "He really put an effort into allaying the fears of families on both sides of desegregation. He was good at bridging the gap and making sure all the children felt safe on campus and encouraging the staff to do the same."
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Cox Elementary recently underwent renovations, opening the 2016-17 school year with a new music and art room, a cafeteria/multipurpose room, an updated parking lot, new paint all around and a fresh start.
The Title 1 school earned a failing state grade in 2014-15, the year Claudia Steinacker came on as principal, bringing it up to a D during 2015-16.
"We are striving to bring that up to a C or better," Steinacker said. "We are focused on what we have to do."
It's a steep climb for the students, many of whom come from non-English-speaking homes.
"I have students whose families come from Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatamala, Mexico, Puerto Rico," said Carmen Hernandez, a 13-year substitute "floater" who works in the classroom, answers the phone and helps translate for parent/teacher conferences.
Kindergarten teacher Jeannette Evens, who formerly worked at Oakstead Elementary in Land O'Lakes, started this school year with five non-English-speaking students. That's average across all grades, Steinacker said.
"It's challenging but humbling, moving from an area of affluence to one of need," Evans said. "There are no extra backpacks here. No extra school supplies. You know that the number one thing is to love your kids. To see your students. To see their success."
The school offers dental care for students and other neighboring schools at an on-site facility run by the county Health Department. Health care is administered through the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile. There's a free after school tutoring program. Ninety-seven percent of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.
"Our students know that they are loved, that they are fed, that they are going to have good times and that we'll help them through the bad times," Steinacker said.
That rings true for students like pre-K buddies Nevaeh Howell,, who is making strides in math and reading these days, and Owen Hodges, who expressed fondness for his teacher, Amanda Ricard, and pretty much everyone else at the school while being interviewed for Cox's 90th anniversary video.
"These people are so nice," Owen said earnestly. "They help me when I fall. They always love me."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.