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Imagine School at St. Petersburg pulls together after student Paris Whitehead-Hamilton killed in home

New schools often struggle at first, but Imagine School at St. Petersburg had a rockier beginning than most.

The principal had a heart attack a month before the doors opened in August. The second floor wasn't finished until the day before classes started. Administrators had planned for 250 students but learned at the last minute that only 15 had signed up.

Staff members overcame those challenges and turned their attention to building a community of students and parents.

Then, with the end of the academic year in sight, one of the school's second-graders was killed early on a Sunday morning when more than 50 bullets were fired into her home. Police say the three bullets that hit Paris Whitehead-Hamilton were meant for a rival gang member inside the house.

Two weeks later, the tragedy still reverberates throughout the school.

Teachers talk about it in hushed voices. Fourth- and fifth-graders pour out their thoughts in words and images. Occasionally, a younger child lashes out in a display of confusion and anger.

On the day after Paris' death, 10-year-old Logan Caraballo came home from school and asked his mother if he could be gunned down, too.

"He said, 'I know my room is behind the garage and it would be hard for them to hit me,' " said Tracy Caraballo. "But he wanted to know, 'What if I get up in the middle of the night to get a drink?' "

• • •

Imagine Schools Inc., based in Arlington, Va., operates 51 charter schools nationwide and serves more than 25,000 children. Like all charters, Imagine schools operate under an agreement with local school boards. Students attend for free.

In spring 2008, the company spent $4 million to renovate a 50-year-old former savings and loan building just west of downtown St. Petersburg. The location was chosen, said Imagine regional director Fred Damianos, because data showed that families in south Pinellas were underserved by regular public schools.

Following the Imagine formula, children who attend kindergarten through fifth grade at Imagine School at St. Petersburg move through several work stations, rotating every 90 minutes to a different teacher who specializes in a single subject area, such as reading or math. Each teacher within a subject area works with the same children for three years, getting to know each student's strengths and weaknesses.

The model was attractive to Judy Schroeder, who was searching for a more affordable alternative to Northside Christian, the private school her daughter Caitlyn had been attending.

"One of the questions I had was, 'Can I be sure that she will be challenged?' " Schroeder said. "I didn't want to drop her into the public school environment where she could fall between the cracks."

Schroeder says the school has been a great fit for Caitlyn, who is 11. She was thrilled when the Pinellas School Board approved Imagine's request to expand to a middle school at the same location, beginning next year with sixth grade.

Donna Schmidt sent her 11-year-old son Duncan to Imagine not only for the academics but for the diversity. Situated on the historical dividing line between north and south Pinellas, the school is a melting pot of children from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

"I want Duncan to belong to the real world," Schmidt said. "I want him to be able to recognize differences and explore them."

• • •

Exploring differences has come into sharp focus in the weeks since Paris' death. Some Imagine students know street violence only through the filter of TV shows and video games. For others, it's very real.

Demarques Wilson, 11, is familiar with the sound of gunfire in his neighborhood. His mother, Asia Clark-Jones, recently replaced the chain-link fence in the family's yard with a wooden fence so her four young children wouldn't see drug deals being made in the alley behind the house.

Demarques watched intently last week as his fifth-grade writing teacher, Matt Gunderson, ran a slide show of photos from Paris' funeral and a video of a police raid that netted assault rifles from a house 20 blocks south of the school.

He was silent when Gunderson asked the students how a fellow student's death was affecting them. But other children spoke up.

"It bothers me that someone from this school died," one said.

"It bothers me that there are people out there who want to murder," said another.

Gunderson urged them to express their feelings in words and images. Within an hour, they had created posters that reflected the depth of their emotions.

"One bullet, one choice," one student wrote. Another printed "peace is better than war" in large block letters.

The next day, the children hung the posters in the hallways of the two-story building, clustering many of them outside of Paris' classroom.

Dawn Wilson, Imagine's principal since October, said she already can see the school's inner strength shining through the pain.

"When we came in on that Monday morning, there were a lot of tears and a lot of questions," Wilson said. "But I think sometimes the hardest times cause people to pull together. I think that's what we're seeing at our school right now."


About charter schools

• Florida's 389 charters are public schools that are free for students, operate under agreement with the local school board and are run by nonprofits. They enroll more than 117,000 students.

• There are nine charter schools in Pinellas serving about 1,300 students. Hillsborough County has 27 charter schools with about 3,500 students enrolled.

About Imagine

Address: 1950 First Ave. N.

Students enrolled: 350.

Teacher-pupil ratio: One teacher to 18 students.

Racial breakdown: 53 percent African-American; 35 percent white; 10 percent Hispanic; 2 percent Asian.

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch: 62 percent.

Imagine School at St. Petersburg pulls together after student Paris Whitehead-Hamilton killed in home 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 11:42pm]
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