CLEARWATER — This morning Pinellas County schools are springing to life with an explosion of sound and color.
Bus motors are rumbling, doors slamming, feet pounding on concrete sidewalks, bells ringing, and hallways filling with the shouts and squeals of friends greeting friends after summer's drought of daily contact. Teachers are standing outside their classroom doors like buoys in a surging sea of noisy students, dressed in colorful first-day-of-school clothes. When the halls empty, teachers will write their names on the board and turn toward their students to begin another year.
But at the red brick school on N Fort Harrison Avenue, there is no air of beginnings today. The silence there speaks instead of endings, of traditions interrupted, of a past no longer relevant.
No footprints smudge the gleaming wood floors. No food smells emanate from the cafeteria kitchen. For the first time since 1915, North Ward Elementary is empty on the first day of school.
North Ward closed for good June 2. It might have closed years earlier if not for lobbying by parents and alumni who saw value there, not just in the historic structure, but in the way North Ward nurtured and educated its children — not in a spread-out modern campus, but all together in a compact, intimate two-story building; not in a student population of 500 to 700 pupils, typical in most Pinellas elementary schools, but in a close-knit student body of about 300.
Today the children who would have been zoned for North Ward are bypassing the red brick edifice on their way to other, newer schools built according to the latest theories of educational design, with central heat and air-conditioning, with miles of wiring in the walls to feed the computers and other electronics considered essential to modern education.
North Ward educated generations of Clearwater's children without most of those trappings. For much of its history, there was no air-conditioning in the classrooms, just humid breezes that streamed off of Clearwater Harbor behind the school and through the 8-foot-tall windows in every room. On cold days the classrooms were warmed by radiators fed by one of the two boilers in the school's brick-walled basement. The date on one of the boilers is still visible: 1963. That's the new one.
With the school empty, a person can walk North Ward's vacant hallways and admire its old bones. The heavy double front doors open into an entry hall with dark wood floors and cream-colored beadboard wainscoting. The walls are concrete, thick and cool to the touch.
In the empty classrooms, hardwood floors creak underfoot. Each room's coat closet has double doors that slide on old swivel mechanisms and heavy plank shelves lined with empty coat hooks, 32 per room. A question is written on the board in one room: "What are we learning today?" On another, just "Good bye all." Someone has written on the windows a science term for each letter of the alphabet. "E" is for "Erosion." "I" is for "Inertia." "W" is for "Weathering."
The thick banister on the central stairway is roughened by thousands of small hands and it leads upward to the second floor, where views of the sparkling harbor and the islands beyond must have been a daily distraction to students and teachers.
The second-floor auditorium with its semicircular stage is empty now and the piano sits out in the hall, protected by a brown dustcover. But stand a moment in the sun-washed room and you can imagine you hear children singing, lined up on the stage in their best clothes, parents smiling from their seats.
An official says North Ward will not be torn down by the school district — it has too much history, is too dear to too many hearts.
So what happens to a school so old that it has become an anachronism?
It stands sturdy but silent on the first day of school, while a new generation surges toward the future.