NEW PORT RICHEY — Six-year-old Ashlyn Steen followed the rules.
When she got the parent survey, she brought it straight home to her mommy to be filled out. The next day, she handed it to her first-grade teacher at Gulf Highlands Elementary.
That's why on Friday morning she was aiming an apple-sized water balloon at her principal.
Here was the deal: Students were sent home with surveys to give to their parents, who could then rate the quality of the school. If more than 100 of them brought the surveys back, the whole school of about 525 students would have the treat of pelting principal Kara Smucker and assistant principal Keri Allen with water balloons.
Last year, Gulf Highlands was the only elementary school in the county to receive an F rating. School ratings are a measure of how well students do on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
When the school didn't make the cut last year, the principal and assistant principal were rotated out. Smucker and Allen were sent from Lake Myrtle Elementary, in hopes of bringing the school back up to par.
Part of that, Smucker said, comes from listening to parents. The survey covered home/school relations, communication and school environment. Parents answered on a scale from "agree" to "disagree" on statements such as "My child receives quality instruction in reading at this school" and "Parents are provided adequate access to teachers for conferences."
When the challenge was issued, students were given four weeks to come back with the surveys. A thermometer broadcast every Friday on the school's morning announcements tracked how many evaluations were coming back. It also seemed to measure students' excitement.
Smucker could hardly cross the cafeteria without students asking if she was ready for the big day or saying "we're gonna get you."
"When we do silly things," Smucker said, "that just seems to motivate them."
In January, Lake Myrtle principal Jason Petry got students to raise $8,000 with the promise to spend a workday on the cafeteria roof.
Smucker hoped a similar tactic would work.
It did. By Friday, 126 surveys had come in. The spectacle was on.
Two blue plastic chairs sat under a pavilion in front of the school. Ten feet away, blue chalk lines on the sidewalk marked where students would take their positions. A red foam pool noodle served as the throwing line. Smucker and Allen took their places in the seats. Barefoot and both wearing khaki shorts and green T-shirts with the word "Believe" on them (another motivator for students), they joked with each other while they waited.
The classroom doors opened. Like toy soldiers, the students marched down the hallways. Under teacher instruction, they were silent, holding "bubbles" in their mouths; cheeks puffed, lips pursed. But you could see it all in their eyes.
In a single-file line, they glanced over each other's shoulders at their targets. Some practiced their throws. Others flashed their jack-o'-lantern smiles.
Their little heads barely cleared the top of the trash bin holding the balloons full of ice-cold water.
Other teachers plopped the balloons into each student's hand and issued the rules:
Not at the face.
Ashlyn, the little girl in a blue T-shirt with a purple flower on the front and a matching pair of shorts, made her way to the front. Her white Velcro-fastened sneakers pigeon-toed at the line. She shoved her bangs out of her eyes and took aim. Then she chucked the balloon.
It made a little arc, half way to where Smucker and Allen sat, then it bounced and scuttled down the sidewalk without breaking. But Ashlyn didn't care. She smirked and skipped down the line to join her friends.
As grade numbers got higher, students in the line got bigger. And balloons flew faster.
One boy with a skull on his shirt and a wide-eyed look of determination on his face cradled a blue balloon.
Smucker and Allen pleaded from their seats. "Gentle! Gentle!"
Ethan Rivera, 9, wound up, then lobbed the balloon in a high arc. It broke right on Allen's shoulder, drenching her.
Ethan, who said he forgot to bring his survey back, pumped a fist in the air and ran down the line, high-fiving his buddies. "Direct shot on Mrs. Allen," he said.
Other balloons soared over their heads, or splattered at their feet. A few slapped them across the chest without breaking.
After all the students had cycled through and gone in to the cafeteria to eat their lunch, Smucker and Allen, in water-splotched clothes, broke into an all-out balloon fight with other teachers. A line of fifth-graders squealed from a nearby sidewalk.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.