The countdown has begun for eight Pinellas schools that will close their doors for the last time on June 2. But even now, some of the littlest believers are hoping for a miracle.
Last week, three children at Clearview Avenue Elementary in St. Petersburg brought principal Karen Russell an envelope stuffed with three nickels and two dozen pennies.
"They put their own money together and brought it up to the office to give me before it was too late," Russell said. "I thanked them, hugged them and told them I loved them."
Amid end-of-year celebrations and sighs of relief that summer vacation is almost here, students and staffers at the six elementaries and two middle schools have been rehearsing good-byes and packing up decades of memories.
Several of the schools have been home to four generations of families. Seven have welcomed students for more than 50 years. One, North Ward Elementary in Clearwater, is just shy of its 100th birthday.
None went down without a fight.
Bewildered parents, teachers and students stormed the administration building, protesting the School Board's decision to shut down their schools. But their pleas were futile in the face of declining enrollment and a $40 million budget shortfall. The board voted in January to close the schools, figuring the district could save $7 million.
Board members reasoned that because all the schools are relatively small, nearby schools could easily absorb their populations. And with retirements, they concluded, all the teachers should be able to find positions at other schools.
Still, superintendent Julie Janssen said, it was the toughest decision the board has made in a long time, coming on the heels of a 2007 decision to close Largo Central and South Ward elementaries and Riviera Middle School.
"It's heart-wrenching," Janssen said, acknowledging that many of the things the schools have to offer — dedicated staffs, parental involvement, a family atmosphere — are what matter most when it comes to educating children.
"It's tough to say we believe in all those things and still close the schools, but our backs are against the wall."
At a glance | Whole lot of history here
Clearview Avenue Elementary
3815 43rd St. N, St. Petersburg
Opened: 1931 Construction cost: $23,661
The only school in the county built in the 1930s. By accident, the architect's plans were reversed so there was
no front entrance. During the Great Depression, the school raised money for equipment at box supper socials
and Saturday night dances.
Coachman Fundamental Middle
2235 NE Coachman Road, Clearwater
Opened: 1995 Construction cost: Not available
Established after parents lobbied for three years for a north county fundamental middle school. Coachman
was nicknamed "Trailer Coachman" because the first students were housed in six portable classrooms joined by walkways on the back lot of Curtis Fundamental Elementary.
Gulf Beaches Elementary
8600 Boca Ciega Drive, St. Pete Beach
Opened: 1950 Construction cost: $129,345
Originally designed for 260 students, the school grew to 326 students within three months. The Fishbroil,
a community tradition from the 1930s, moved to Gulf Beaches in the 1970s. Local fishermen continued
to donate mullet that was chargrilled over bedsprings.
Kings Highway Elementary
1715 Kings Highway, Clearwater
Opened: 1957 Construction cost: $244,862
The school's first principal was a woman, rare in the 1950s. Kings Highway was integrated in 1969, a year
before the district was court-ordered to desegregate. The staff has included two former Catholic nuns,
a former Protestant minister, and a delegate to the 1984 Democratic national convention.
North Ward Elementary
900 N Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater
Opened: 1915 Construction cost: $8,000
The school was named for E.R. Ward, who came to the area in 1885. Most students in the early years arrived on foot or on horseback or rode in a horse and carriage. Teacher salaries ranged from $40 to $80 a month. Students found to be 100 percent physically fit were awarded blue ribbons as an incentive to observe health rules.
Palm Harbor Elementary
415 15th St., Palm Harbor
Opened: 1926 Construction cost: $65,000
Originally known as Palm Harbor School, it also served as a community center.
It was destroyed by fire in 1949. Classes were held in school buses and in a frame building moved from Tarpon Springs until a new school was built a year later.
The school has been designated an official National Wildlife Federation
Rio Vista Elementary
8131 Macoma Drive NE, St. Petersburg
Opened: 1925 Construction cost: $34,850
The school was the dream of a developer who saw Rio Vista as the finest
subdivision in the city and wanted to draw families to the area. It closed in 1935
because of declining enrollment. Over the next 16 years, vandals stole plumbing fixtures, hardwood flooring and anything else that could be taken and used in homes
or sold for profit.
Southside Fundamental Middle
1701 10th St. S, St. Petersburg
Opened: 1927 Construction cost: $350,000
One of 18 Pinellas schools constructed in the early 1920s to accommodate
St. Petersburg's growing population, which included a student enrollment of 18,997. It began as a junior high school and became an alternative school for disruptive
students in 1974 before being converted to a fundamental school in 1980.