TAMPA — Grade school children dressed in formal attire greeted guests last week at a fundraiser in a downtown performance hall.
Their principal, Woodland Johnson of Mort Elementary School, revealed later that much of their clothing was purchased that day at Walmart. As for their good manners, which rivaled those of the politicians at the party, the credit goes to a student government program that grooms the children to "access for success."
Johnson, with the backing of the Hillsborough County School District and the Children's Home Society of Florida, wants to make Mort a showcase for community schooling, a concept that aims to meet parents' health and economic needs right where their children are educated.
The goal, as with full-service schools that came into vogue in the 1990s, is to help families become more stable so their children, with less stress in their lives, are better able to learn.
"We're here in the business of educating students," said Holly Saia, the district's director of student services. "But we realize that students are coming in with a lot more than when you and I were in school."
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The numbers at Mort, located in a no-man's-land between Tampa's urban core and its comfortable suburbs, tell much of the story.
More than 95 percent of its 832 students qualify for free lunch. Cheap rental housing is everywhere. With only two buses serving the school, adults form a "walking school bus" to get kids across high-traffic Bearss Avenue.
More than half the students are Hispanic, and roughly a third are just now learning English. According to data provided last week, the neighborhood crime rate is 25 times the national average.
"The Mort neighborhood is one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in our county," said school social worker Melissa Enzor, who told stories of children living in cheap hotels, and a mother sitting in the school, soaking wet from the rain, job-hunting desperately to avoid the next eviction.
Children at the fundraiser said they'd love to see a gymnasium where teens can work out, a vegetable garden to feed the hungry or a larger library. "I'm in love with reading," said Jayda Wilson, 12.
Sky Sekkat, 11, spoke of difficulties in his family and a period of time when he was separated from his mother. She's back in his life now, he said, and "I have a lot of friends."
Like others at the event, Sky is a leader in one of the school's five "houses," an arrangement that mimics the fictional Hogwarts in Harry Potter novels.
The theme of Sky's house is perseverance. "I persevere all the time," he said.
Jonah Nemitz, 10, said that in addition to addressing homelessness, he'd like to help Mort's reputation. "A lot of people say Mort is a terrible school." It isn't, he said.
While many of Tampa's high-poverty schools have F grades, Mort is celebrating that it improved to a D.
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Community and full-service schools have a mixed track record. In nearby Sulphur Springs, hopes were high in 2010 when a network of businesses and community organizations announced plans to serve children from birth to college.
The effort foundered for awhile, then was reinvigorated this year when the district converted Sulphur Springs Elementary School to a K-8.
A more clear-cut success model is Evans High School in Orlando, say Children's Home Society leaders. Resources there include a medical clinic on campus with separate waiting rooms — one for students, another for the neighborhood.
To encourage more students to take advantage of after-school tutoring, the Evans staff began serving dinner and added late buses to bring the kids home. Graduation rates climbed from 64 percent to 80 percent, equating to an economic impact of $48 million, the Children's Home Society reports.
Buoyed by those results, the society hopes to launch 18 more community schools in Florida, beginning with Mort.
"I'm so excited about the possibilities for our community," Johnson said.
"My dream is that all of our kids are high-performing, have the opportunities, have the chances to be highly successful at whatever they want to do."
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Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he likes the fact that, unlike full-service schools that depend on public funding, the community school model is less vulnerable to government cutbacks.
Relying on outside groups can, itself, be risky. But, Johnson said, "we're looking for a 25-year commitment from our partners. … We're looking at a long-term, sustainable project."
Participants so far include Florida Hospital, the University of South Florida, Van Dyke Church and the University Area Community Development Corp.
The first contract to come before the School Board calls for mental health counseling for Mort students and, if needed, their parents.
Johnson and Saia are working through the legal and logistical details. Among other things, they want to make sure parents understand that they intend not to be intrusive, but to focus on issues that interfere with learning.
A second, far broader memorandum should come before the board by the end of the school year, Saia said.
Services ultimately offered could include after-school or Saturday programs. "We can offer parenting classes at night," Johnson said. "It might be a financial class where we're teaching parents how to manage money, to effectively shop."
Mort isn't starting from scratch, Johnson said. The school operates a food pantry and collects clothing for children who need it. Teachers pulled together for the family Enzor described, furnishing the apartment that the unemployed mother ultimately secured.
Johnson has also seen results from the student leadership program, which he uses to teach children communication skills they will need later in life.
"We have to help our children learn how to access for success," he said. "Affluent families, they know right where to go, right who to call, how to get there. Our children don't."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.