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For 3 Pinellas schools, last day means closing

With Riviera Middle closing, Maurice Herring, 31, packs up his class Monday. He wants to keep the sheet students signed.

DIRK SHADD | Times

With Riviera Middle closing, Maurice Herring, 31, packs up his class Monday. He wants to keep the sheet students signed.

The boxes are piled high with books and papers, paints and pencils and a thousand odds and ends.

The hallways are crowded with shelves and wayward desks and the imagined echoes of kids lining up for lunch.

Long faces fill the teachers lounges, the new places of mourning.

Educators train for many things, but never to empty out a school and close it down.

Today ends the saddest of years for three Pinellas schools, Largo Central and South Ward elementaries and Riviera Middle School. They close for good this afternoon, casualties of an unprecedented exodus of families chased away by high property insurance premiums, real estate prices gone wild and a souring economy.

Pinellas reached a peak of 112,520 students in 2003, capping generations of steady growth. Next year's enrollment will slip to about 104,600 and continue downward for the next few years.

The School Board approved the closings in December as part of a new student assignment plan. More closings are expected next year. If longevity is the measure of what is being lost today, 102-year-old South Ward may top the list, with its creaking wood floors and high-ceiling classrooms where Pinellas pioneers learned to read.

"You can almost hear some of the history as you walk through," said principal Randy Rozelle. "It's there. And you feel special at having been part of it."

If the measure of loss is angst, Riviera wins the award. The school's staff seems especially deflated over the closing and the district's change of plans for placing them in new schools. The School Board initially pledged to place the teachers at closed schools first in line for transfers. But after recent budget cuts added more than 100 "special assignment" teachers to the mix, the district decided to base transfers on seniority and qualifications instead.

The uncertainty has put many on edge. "My life is in that school and my life is ending and I don't know what it's going to," Linda Raines, a 24-year guidance counselor at Riviera, told the School Board last week.

"For myself and for 99.9 percent of the staff, it has been the most depressing year, the most stressful year, that we have ever gone through," said Pat Schley, another veteran teacher. "I chose Riviera and have never had a day that I did not love and respect everyone here on this campus."

Her lips tightened to hold back tears. "It was perfect."

Of the three schools, Largo Central fought hardest to stay open, with efforts by parents that included protests at district headquarters. Friday evening, dozens of students, parents, alumni and former staffers visited the school one last time. They held a raffle, ate cake and pored over yellowed photo albums. Parents said they took comfort that local kids usually progressed from Largo Central to Largo Middle to Largo High, all near downtown.

Ron Lindell, 47, said Largo Central placed his first-grade son, Holden, in a smaller class to overcome his fears.

"You just can't find that these days," he said. "I didn't think I'd be this emotional about it closing but I am. It's a shame. The district is losing a great school."

Jim Miller, who heads the district's real estate department, said each school faces a different future. The district probably will hold onto the Riviera site for the foreseeable future, he said. Largo Central will be used by neighboring Largo High, and South Ward could be sold because the site is too small for a modern school.

As recently as last July, district officials selected an architect and a basic design for a long-planned reconstruction of Riviera, said principal Phil Wirth, who came to the school two years ago expecting to help with the project. "We were all set," he said. "All set."

Ask the people at each school how they soldiered through this year and they say they pulled together and focused on the kids. South Ward had the added burden of dealing with the death of art teacher Jennifer Nolletti, 26, in an October car accident.

Some highlights: South Ward's Battle of the Books team returned to a hero's welcome after finishing an impressive sixth in the district; Riviera went out with a fourth-place showing at Battle of the Books and once again excelled in band; and Largo Central's third- grade reading scores shot up 14 percent.

Through it all, according to people at all three schools, the staffs became closer — which only makes the breakup harder.

"It's going to tear me up to not work with these people next year," said Rozelle, the South Ward principal. "They don't want to be broken apart either."

Riviera was like a family, said Schley. "Nobody wants to leave each other."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

Roster of closings

Largo Central Elementary, 250 First Ave. NE, Largo.

History: Opened in 1963 as Pinellas County's first air-conditioned elementary. Constructed in only four months on the former site of the Largo High Agricultural Center.

Enrollment: 350. Annual cost savings from closing: $750,637

• • •

South Ward Elementary, 601 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater.

History: Its opening in 1906 makes it Pinellas' oldest school. Brick structure added in 1912 was the original Clearwater High. The school is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Enrollment: 245. Annual cost savings from closing: $617,965.

• • •

Riviera Middle School, 501 62nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg.

History: Opened in 1965 as Riviera Junior High, replacing overcrowded Mirror Lake Junior High.

Enrollment: 680. Annual cost savings from closing: $1.6-million

For 3 Pinellas schools, last day means closing 06/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 4, 2008 2:58pm]

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