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Replacement teachers at struggling Melrose Elementary get to know neighborhood

ST. PETERSBURG — Clutching cameras and iPhones and tote bags and glossy brochures about the day's sightseeing destinations, the tourists boarded a hot pink bus.

Two guides were on hand, including one who was "born and raised" in the neighborhood. Decades ago, she said, when a midwife's services could be bought in trade, her mother's birth was paid for with a chicken and a bunch of collard greens.

The area in question was Midtown. The tour guide was Pinellas School Board member Rene Flowers. The tourists weren't tourists at all, but teachers. And this year — as Mayor Bill Foster would tell them at the tour's end over baked beans and barbecued chicken — is the most important year of their lives.

This is the year that Melrose Elementary, home of the Manatees, gets a fresh start.

Under the shadow of a state-mandated restructuring for low performance, Melrose got a staff makeover this year. Nanette Grasso, with 28 years of experience, is the new principal. Her hand-picked staff includes a mix of teachers; some are 30-year veterans while others are in their first years of teaching. Nearly all are new to the school.

Like the other four "turnaround" schools in Pinellas, the teachers were offered $3,000 recruitment bonuses. But most said they came "because of Nanette" and the chance to make a difference where it's needed.

Kim Lopez, a 34-year teaching veteran and fifth-grade teacher, worked with Grasso at Orange Grove Elementary in Seminole. She said she's nearing retirement and "I want to spend my last three years teaching my heart out."

Her daughter, Emily Lopez, a first-grade teacher, also is following Grasso from Orange Grove. Emily's fiance, Casey Maker, is coming from Fairmount Park Elementary, another "turnaround" school.

Donna Logan, one of two teachers who worked at Melrose before, said there's new energy at the school.

"The excitement from the staff is very infectious this year," she said.

Foster called them "miracle workers," and that might be what's needed at Melrose.

The school at 1752 13th Ave. S is the poorest in Pinellas, with 97 percent of the students on subsidized lunch. One in four last year were held back one to two years. Last month, the state hit Melrose with its third F.

Flowers told the teachers not to pay too much attention to the F.

"I don't believe that there are failing schools because that implies that everyone in the school is a failure," she said. "But I do believe there are challenges."

Grasso doesn't even like the word "challenge." She worries it could be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Part of the key to success at Melrose, she said, will be earning the trust of the community.

Terri Lipsey Scott, chairwoman of the board of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, put it plainly to the teachers when they stopped at the museum for lunch. Almost all of them were white, she noted, while the students are almost all black.

"Your responsibility is to a community that does not reflect you," she said.

The teachers and the students might encounter some "cultural barriers," she said. She encouraged them to ask for help.

"We're not going to let you down," Grasso said. "We're not going to let the community down. And more than that, we're not going to let the parents and the students down."

She said the staff bonding started earlier in the week. On Tuesday, they played "get to know you" games. Asked to write something on a card that would be a surprise, Grasso revealed a secret: When she was 20, she was a Weeki Wachee mermaid.

Teachers were still talking about that on Thursday.

The tour, many teachers said, gave them an important glimpse into where their students live. Many come from Jordan Park, a public housing area near Melrose. Two staff members who had worked at Melrose said they had never seen Jordan Park before.

The group toured the Enoch Davis Center and the Johnnie Ruth Clark Health Care Center. They drove past Carter's Florist and Happy Workers Day Care.

And, when the bus got stuck outside St. Petersburg Clay Company, the teachers walked to the Manhattan Casino and on to the Woodson museum. One remarked quietly to another, "This is actually a better way to see the neighborhood."

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Replacement teachers at struggling Melrose Elementary get to know neighborhood 08/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 9, 2013 12:29pm]
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