TAMPA — It's not every day that an elementary school cafeteria is transformed into a television studio for a nationally broadcast cable talk show.
But on Thursday morning Alexander Elementary became the well-lit backdrop for MSNBC's Morning Joe, the show featuring former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough.
The topic of the "town hall" was a no-brainer: education. The panel of guests appearing on the school stage included big names.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was there. So was R&B singer John Legend, who works with Harlem Village Academies, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Los Angeles Urban League President Blair Taylor and longtime newspaper columnist turned commentator Mike Barnicle.
Beamed in from other spaces: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
All of them wanted to talk about their support for educational reform efforts that have shown success in even the most difficult neighborhoods, regardless of political ideology. They highlighted places like Brooklyn Generation School in New York, Crenshaw High in Los Angeles and the charter school reforms in New Orleans.
They lauded work at Tampa's Alexander Elementary, a high-achieving public school where 90 percent of the children are enrolled in the federally funded free or reduced lunch program.
"It's the civil rights issue of the 21st century," said Sharpton, who added his National Action Network is focused on educational initiatives. "To me, the new bigotry is low expectations."
Co-host Mika Brzezinski acknowledged that the current economic realities make funding schools and paying teachers a difficult issue.
But in a more commercial moment, Brzenzski held a bag of "Morning Joe" coffee by Starbucks and announced that Bloomberg and Starbucks chief Howard Schultz have combined efforts to match coffee sales and donate funds to "educational entrepreneurs."
Who the exact beneficiaries will be, she said after the show, is still being discussed.
Bloomberg, a Republican and millionaire who has long been discussed as a potential presidential candidate, said New York's success stories have been built in part around good union relationships and rewarding good teachers with good pay.
"It's one word. Teachers," Bloomberg said, "You have to have a great teacher in front of the child."
In an audience filled with parents, students and educators, Alexander first-grade teacher Rayanne D'Auria, listened with interest.
In her third year of teaching, she said she's becoming more and more familiar with the political interest in what she does every day.
"It would be nice," she said, "if sometimes people would just come and see what we go through day in and day out."
Ashley Danley, 16, a sophomore at the Urban Teaching Academy in Hillsborough, said the charter-heavy panel discussion left out educational programs for which she has a special affinity.
"They didn't really mention magnet programs," she said. "They help out schools more than they get credit for."
After the 6 to 9 a.m. program ended and show staffers began dismantling a stage set decorated with a plethora of chalkboards, students from the Men of Vision service group took pictures with Sharpton and Legend.
Meanwhile, the school's principal, Kristina Alvarez, scurried to get the school back in order.
Show organizers took over the lunchroom Friday. Students there had been eating outside ever since.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.