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Gulf Beaches Elementary closes chapter for St. Pete Beach community

ST. PETE BEACH — One last time, Foamy Fun broke out Tuesday in Room 9.

Mrs. Wanamaker, beloved for decades by kindergarteners at Gulf Beaches Elementary, squirted piles of shaving cream on four little tabletops. Little hands began frantically smearing.

"Show me the number that tells me how old you are," she said.

After six decades, the final bell would ring within the hour, shuttering the last public school on the barrier islands. Principal Tony Pleshe walked into the classroom. He crouched by the kids and wound up with shaving cream on his nose.

He suddenly stood up and walked out, his eyes red and wet. He tried to blame it on the Barbasol fumes. Everyone else in the room, even observant kindergartners, knew better.

• • •

Gulf Beaches Elementary School opened at just the right time.

In 1950, Florida was booming. The population along Pinellas' beaches was surging. It was no longer a snowbird haven; it was a real community with families and businesses and infrastructure.

"Any old-timers around here remember all the community and civic clubs that got behind bringing that school here," said Frank Hurley, an 84-year-old member of St. Pete Beach's historic preservation board.

Pass-a-Grille's Sunshine School, which had been around since 1915, was no longer adequate, Hurley said.

Gulf Beaches Elementary opened and quickly absorbed most of the kids from Sunshine, which closed in 1975 and passed along its traditions, including the famous fundraising Fish Broil.

Parents, teachers and kids just love this little school. They call it a "generational school," "one of the last true neighborhood schools" and "the best little school on the beach."

But Florida has changed. Fewer families are moving into pricey beach homes, and more are moving out. Enrollment has been down for years. This year, amid rumors that Gulf Beaches would close, the school population dropped from 360 to 265.

Gulf Beaches is one of eight Pinellas schools shutting their doors because of declining enrollment and tighter budgets. The beach kids will be bused over the bridge starting in the fall.

"We're all very upset," said Debbie Linkogle, who picked up Julia, 8, and Alex, 7, there for the last time Tuesday afternoon. "This was a school where everybody knows everybody, and they treat kids like their own kids."

At nearby Lou's Flowers, owner John Lovell was sorry to say goodbye. Some teachers came in Monday asking for rose donations for the retirees.

"I think it's such a shame," Lovell said. "It's why people move into an area, so they can have things like a school close by."

• • •

Five fifth-grade girls shuffled through a hallway marked "Responsibility Ave." carrying their desks to the cafeteria.

They spent their last day at Gulf Beaches making little autograph books, promising to keep in touch. But all five are going to different schools next year.

"We'll probably never see our friends again after this," said 11-year-old Alyssa Davison.

It would be the end of primary school pleasantries, the last time they'd be able to pop by to see their kindergarten teacher on the way to pint-sized restrooms.

They'll be thrown to the middle school wolves next year. Were they scared?

Not really, said 11-year-old Kelly Bellinger.

"Kelly's in karate," classmate Adrianna Lindsey explained. "She's a black belt."

• • •

Gulf Beaches didn't go down quietly. Everyone from parents to grandparents to local politicians raised hell with the Pinellas County School Board when rumors arose last year.

St. Pete Beach officials sent fliers and put up signs around the community in December, urging them to attend a School Board meeting to protest the closing.

The efforts failed. Mayor Mike Finnerty called the closing devastating, saying the beach town may never be the same.

None were as crushed as the teachers, kids and parents at Gulf Beaches. Some were angry and had unkind words for the school board. Some, like 26-year teacher Kathy Wanamaker, kept a smile until the final bell.

And then she broke down. A stream of former kinder-bears — her nickname for her students — came in to hug her.

Principal Pleshe took a deep breath and gave his final goodbye over the PA system with as much grace as he could muster.

"We're getting ready for dismissal," he announced. "Please keep us in mind as you go through your careers. Have a great day and a safe summer."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Gulf Beaches Elementary closes chapter for St. Pete Beach community 06/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 2:46pm]
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