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On first day of school, Tampa's Desoto Elementary will shine like new a century after opening

TAMPA — Floodwaters tried to take it. Wandering chickens and feral cats wanted it, too.

But judging from the resilience of DeSoto Elementary, a neighborhood school is a powerful thing.

More than 100 years after its opening, the school is enjoying a new lease on life, thanks to an award-winning, $1.7 million renovation. Alumni and students say that investment means a lot.

"To me, it's a real pleasure to see it this way," said Sue Ann Valenti, who graduated from the school in the late 1950s and will soon see a granddaughter follow in her footsteps. "From then to now, it's so much better."

Around 189,000 students are heading back to school today in Hillsborough County. Many of them will travel miles by bus to new buildings with little history.

For students at DeSoto Elementary, just about everyone has a short walk. Since 1898, the school, 2618 Corrine St., has served as the focal point of the tiny Palmetto Beach neighborhood, perched between Ybor City and Tampa Bay.

An earlier building was flooded out by a 1921 storm and replaced four years later with a Spanish-style building that fit well in its largely Cuban-American neighborhood. It was the sort of place where adults knew every child, said Valenti.

"Back in my day, after school you went to the park, and you came back at 9 o'clock at night," she said.

But over the decades, upkeep slipped as the district raced to keep up with a growing population. By the time principal Gilda Garcia arrived six yeas ago, the building was showing its age.

"The lighting was very poor, and many of the air-conditioning units were loud and disrupted learning," she said.

There wasn't any ventilation at all in the corridors, so doors were propped open for air. And that brought a different problem.

"Chickens were running through there, cats and dogs," said lead engineer Joseph Robinson of RHC & Associates, barking with laughter at the memory.

It seems neighbors' chickens and cats did consider the playground home, and might have attempted an occasional visit indoors, admitted Garcia.

Now there's quiet air conditioning for all, and tile floors brought back to their original luster.

Atelier Architects and JBD Construction helped restore the building's original fan windows. The team in spring won a design award for historic presentation from the City-County Planning Commission, with a nod to the school district's Office of Supplier Diversity.

Neighbors and alumni come by all the time to enjoy the building brought back to its former glory. And students see they're valued, Garcia said.

With a school capacity of just 306, everyone knows everyone, she said. Last year, the school jumped from a C to an A.

Going to school in a well-kept building matters, said parent Lisa Valenti.

"It's just DeSoto," she said. "It's home."

How was the first day of school? Send us your photos, or tell us about problems with school assignments or bus routes: tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

On first day of school, Tampa's Desoto Elementary will shine like new a century after opening 08/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 11:29pm]
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