TAMPA — After Mario Hammond learned how to care for, respect and not eat while using his Lenovo ThinkPad, he fired it up to complete a science class assignment on space.
"I see it multiple times and I remember it," said Mario, a 12-year-old at Sulphur Springs K-8 Community School.
One desk over, Erica Frazier used her tablet to find information about solids, liquids and gas. "I like technology," Erica, 11, said. "Without technology, it would be boring."
The students are among 62 of last year's fifth-grade class of 75 who are back as Sulphur Springs begins a three-year transition from an elementary to a K-8 school.
Alternatives included F-rated Sligh and Van Buren middle schools, magnet schools and privately run charters that are scooping up children by the hundreds. Instead, they chose the nurturing environment of a school that's at the center of an ambitious neighborhood revitalization project.
"We're trying to build a cradle-to-career pipeline," Sheff Crowder said at Thursday's meeting of Sulphur Springs Neighborhood of Promise, which coordinates school and social services to combat poverty in the area.
Crowder is the group's chairman, and the school is one of many components in a holistic campaign to provide opportunities for youth while stabilizing the entire neighborhood.
This isn't the first time grand promises have been made in Sulphur Springs, making it hard to know if the goals are realistic.
Inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, the Sulphur Springs initiative aims to help parents develop babies' brains and boost attendance in preschool.
They want elementary students to spend as much time as possible in after-school settings, such as a YMCA on campus. A social and emotional learning curriculum, offered by the Frameworks organization, helps them cope with problems at home and deal with one another in supportive ways.
The work carries into middle school, high school and adulthood. Home remodeling campaigns aim to increase homeownership, a shift that could keep families in Sulphur Springs longer so their kids don't change schools as often.
Children benefit from resources that include individual computer tablets for all sixth-graders.
But unlike the New York model, which uses charter schools for more flexibility, the Sulphur Springs plan relies solely on district schools. And even after years of community involvement, test scores are mixed and at times discouraging.
A test called i-Ready, which the schools adopted anticipating a delay in this year's state scores, showed 94 percent of Sulphur Springs' fifth-graders were reading below grade level at the beginning and end of the year.
Principal Julie Scardino said this was the first year the schools used i-Ready, so more training was needed. And by the time students took the second round, test fatigue had set in.
"If you're a parent, you can attest to that," she said. "We work to get those numbers up." But "there's so much testing."
• • •
Touting the plan in 2010, backers said the Sulphur Springs area was a prime candidate for a turnaround because of its size — under 2 square miles.
But challenges were clear even then. If Hillsborough County was a poster child for the foreclosure crisis, Sulphur Springs was ground zero. Property owners abandoned their aging structures in droves. The city of Tampa was slow to rebuild, resulting in what is now a mosaic of modern ranch homes and squat cinder block structures.
Sulphur Springs did not get one of the grants the Obama administration awarded to communities seeking to replicate the Harlem project, a discouraging blow that set back planning. More recently, the neighborhood has seen spikes in crime and strained relations with the Tampa Police Department.
All these issues contribute to high student turnover. A United Way effort to help adults get jobs has seen some success. But most pay only $8 to $10 an hour. "Not a living wage," Crowder said.
A resident work group is up and running, addressing a criticism that the effort was controlled by outsiders (Crowder lives in South Tampa). At last count, the group had 18 members. Said Rev. Curt McKay, a leader in the organization: "I think we're going to see those numbers double by December."
• • •
Reeshemah McCoy did not intend to spend 10 years in Sulphur Springs. She bought a new house in the bubble years, thinking she'd flip it as values rose.
Instead, they crashed.
Today, McCoy works at Layla's House, which gives early-childhood development help to parents. Taking guests on a tour of the area, she said, "One day, we're going to look up at our president, and he's going to say, 'I grew up in Sulphur Springs.' "
She enrolled her own two children in a charter school. Years ago, her son went to the former Sulphur Springs Elementary. "He wasn't used to a certain type of way the kids treated him," she said. "He was picked on."
Assistant principal Adam Fleischmann said in the seven years he's been at Sulphur Springs, there has been marked improvement, including in student behavior, despite the community plan's stumbling blocks. "I would put our teachers up against any teachers," he said.
"These are our kids," he said as the science class continued work. "They're good kids."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.