Sunday, February 18, 2018
Education

Dade City's historic Cox Elementary School celebrates 90th anniversary

DADE CITY

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."

• • •

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.

     
Comments
ROTC leader shocked that accused school shooter 1 of his own

ROTC leader shocked that accused school shooter 1 of his own

PARKLAND, Fla. — The sound of gunfire still ringing in his ears after his mad half-mile sprint, Jack Ciaramello was standing with friends in a grocery store parking lot when a sheriff’s deputy approached. He asked the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High se...
Updated: 9 hours ago
From meek to militant: The Florida teachers strike that unsettled a nation and fueled a movement

From meek to militant: The Florida teachers strike that unsettled a nation and fueled a movement

Some teachers left goodbye messages to their students on classroom blackboards. Others cleared their desks.It was Feb. 16, 1968, a Friday, and a sign of what was coming that Monday in Florida: the nation’s first statewide teachers strike.When schools...
Published: 02/18/18
Principal of a pained Stoneman Douglas High just sent a message to his students

Principal of a pained Stoneman Douglas High just sent a message to his students

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High principal Ty Thompson exuded deep emotion and a positive view forward in his first public comments since Wednesday’s mass shooting that killed 17 people.In the two-minute video posted on the school’s website and YouTube,...
Published: 02/18/18
Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

TAMPA — "Elevate," a Hillsborough County School District initiative that was to focus on seven troubled schools and use them as models for dozens more, is becoming but a memory as the district seeks instead to support all schools equally."We’re more ...
Published: 02/17/18
Plant High students commemorate Parkland victims with sidewalk messages

Plant High students commemorate Parkland victims with sidewalk messages

TAMPA — Students at Plant High School honored the victims of the Parkland school shooting with a series of sidewalk chalk messages.The chalk art carried a series of messages such as "How many times?" and "Do something. Protect us." according to a Fac...
Published: 02/16/18
At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

While fielding calls from anxious parents after the Broward County high school shooting that claimed 17 lives, school officials in the Tampa Bay area took a close look Thursday at what they are doing to keep students safe.There are gates and locks an...
Published: 02/15/18
Joe Henderson: April Griffin won’t run again for school board. She says she means it this time.

Joe Henderson: April Griffin won’t run again for school board. She says she means it this time.

Assuming April Griffin follows through on her decision not to seek re-election to the Hillsborough County School Board, well, meetings just won’t be the same. Chances are they’ll just be filled with boring reports, proclamations and routine business....
Published: 02/15/18
‘I don’t get paid for teaching,’ says Pinellas teacher accused of inappropriate acts. Now he’s gone

‘I don’t get paid for teaching,’ says Pinellas teacher accused of inappropriate acts. Now he’s gone

A St. Petersburg High teacher has retired in the middle of the school year after students said he called them "baby," "babe," "missy," "honey," "sweetie," "little girl" and ended one girl’s name with "-licious."The Pinellas County school district fou...
Published: 02/15/18
Interim principal says teamwork will lift long-struggling Moton Elementary

Interim principal says teamwork will lift long-struggling Moton Elementary

BROOKSVILLE — Less than a month after taking over as interim principal at long-struggling Moton Elementary School, Brent Gaustad says teamwork by educators across the district has things looking up.Behavior has improved, he said, and innovative proce...
Published: 02/15/18
17 dead, 15 wounded, former student in custody after Broward school shooting

17 dead, 15 wounded, former student in custody after Broward school shooting

PARKLAND — An American nightmare unfolded Wednesday afternoon at a South Florida high school after police say an expelled teenager returned to campus and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing 17 and wounding 15 more in the worst school shooting ...
Published: 02/14/18