ST. PETERSBURG — New backpacks. Fresh uniforms. Big smiles. Sneaking tears.
In Susan Stritar's kindergarten class at Fairmount Park Elementary, Tuesday brought it all.
A girl who had a bathroom accident. A shy boy who wouldn't speak his name.
Sure, it could be the first day of school anywhere. Almost 104,000 students filed into class at K-12 campuses across Pinellas County Tuesday, officially starting the 2010-11 school year under overcast and drippy skies.
But at Fairmount Park the stakes are a higher this year, the hopes more intense. The school is under the gun to improve after its grade plunged from a C to an F this summer due to poor FCAT scores.
The school in Childs Park opened its doors armed with a new principal and a pilot program modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone project in New York City, touted for turning around schools there.
"It's a new school," said Fairmount principal Cooper Dawson, who helped her previous school, Seventy-Fourth St. Elementary, go from a C to a B last year.
Stritar's was one of four classrooms chosen for the school's pilot program called the Children's Initiative. A key component: more support for the 72 students and their families.
With the help of the city of St. Petersburg and the Juvenile Welfare Board, students will be targeted with services that include home visits. Parents also agree to attend regular parent training sessions.
In Stritar's classroom, Tuesday started off with fresh crayon boxes and new name tags.
She started with a roster of 11, but it grew to 19 by 10 a.m. First days are like that. Some of the kids belonged in other classes.
First child through the Stritar's classroom door: Dontriele Waller, age 5, a smiling boy with a close-shaven head, a light blue uniform shirt and a blue and green backpack and lunch box.
Mother Shakia Callaway proudly aimed her camera phone at Dontriele as he took his seat. The boy, her first-born, woke himself early that morning, dressed himself, ate breakfast.
Now all she wants is for him to stay focused and learn.
More students trickled in.
"Mommy, I like this school," Kaden Danford, 5, said as he took his seat and said goodbye to his mother, T'Ane Fillyau.
Fillyau is a single mother who has been praying for this day to arrive. Her first child, a girl, died with sudden infant death syndrome seven years earlier, she said. To make it this far, to finally see one of her children put on a school uniform and take a seat in kindergarten, was a relief.
So before she pulled out her own camera, before she snapped Kaden's picture and exclaimed, "Oh, my baby's first day!" she pulled Stritar aside.
"I am a parent who really wants to know what's going on," she warned the tall teacher. "The moment he acts up, let me know."
Fillyau worries about her son's future. He is black and his father isn't active in his life. She knows the statistics are against her son, but she's not backing off because of that. She wants him to love school, to graduate with the class of 2024 and pursue whatever dreams he has then.
"My biggest fear for a boy is street life," Fillyau said after stepping outside her son's classroom. "I don't want him to become a thug."
After she left, her son drew a picture of himself on the first day of school. It looked like a rainbow. He listened to a book titled Kindergarten Rocks.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]