Some schools turn 50 years old and celebrate their history. Tyrone Elementary, built in 1958 to support a booming suburban population in St. Petersburg, is carving out a new future.
Officials tried something different at Tyrone, which for years had ranked high on the district's list of schools to be rebuilt. Instead of squeezing a city of portable classrooms onto the campus during construction, they opted to build a new school on the closest piece of district-owned land available — 9 acres near U.S. 19 and 38th Avenue N that once held part of a bus compound and the old Lealman Intermediate School.
The plan eliminated the cost of moving portables to the site and left the district with room to expand neighboring Tyrone Middle School someday. But it also meant an entirely new identity for a school that had served generations of St. Petersburg families.
In a tightly scripted move over the Thanksgiving break, the Tyrone staff moved 4 miles east to a gleaming new building named New Heights Elementary — as in educators hope the students will be reach new heights academically.
"One of the things we talked about with the staff was when children came on the first day of school (after Thanksgiving) and sat in their classrooms, there would be no boxes," said principal Sandra Kemp. "Everything would be in place for learning."
Mindful of the old school's chronic mold problem, the staff took pains to ensure that none of the materials moved to the new building were contaminated.
They planned for the move to be largely complete by the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. "But our teachers were so well-prepared and followed directions so well that they actually finished Sunday afternoon," Kemp said.
Nearly three months later, students and teachers have settled into a facility billed as one of Pinellas County's first "environmentally friendly" schools. Newly constructed Tarpon Springs Elementary is the other one.
Features include a plumbing system said to save 400,000 gallons of water a year, lights that sense when no one's in the room and turn off, a reclaimed water system, drought-tolerant landscaping and a cafeteria that doesn't use paper or plastic.
Students eat on trays and use silverware, a rarity in Pinellas schools.
"The first couple weeks we were fishing silverware out of the trash because they forget," Kemp said. "But the kids are getting acclimated to the idea."
Among the other "green" touches to the building: construction waste was recycled and contractors used paints and sealants with no fumes.
Sophia Battle, a mother of two children at the school, said her 8-year-old daughter, who has a chromosome abnormality, suffered from allergies at Tyrone Elementary. At the new school, she said, "I can definitely see a change in my daughter."
More than the air quality, she said, the staff at Tyrone — and now New Heights — has performed better than those at other Pinellas schools she has tried when it comes to disabled kids.
"They raise the bar on all these kids and they don't wait for them to fail," she said. "It's just a different culture here."
Feona Young, a recent transplant from New York City with two children at New Heights, agrees. Unaccustomed to educators who go all out for her autistic daughter, she was pleasantly surprised when the staff spent five hours developing an education plan for her.
"My 6-year-old is like, 'We could never move back to the Bronx,' " Young said. "To be honest, this is the education I was looking for for my child."
Kemp said the school's longtime commitment to disabled students is one tradition that did not die with the move.
The new school also comes with a few other unusual touches, including SMART Boards in every classroom and a sound system that amplifies a teacher's voice, drowning out distractions.
The latest cost figure for the new school is $27.8 million, though officials say the final amount will be less.
The project comes at an awkward time for Pinellas, which just closed six elementary schools starting next year, citing budget problems and declining enrollment.
Why didn't the district just close Tyrone?
One reason is the project began well before the state budget crisis that created the urgency to close schools.
The other reason, according to assistant superintendent Jim Madden, is that the district takes many factors into account in deciding which schools to close. One of those is the location of a school in relation to the students who need its services, he said. "It's building the right configuration, the right size of schools, to accommodate those things."
About 600 students are enrolled at New Heights this year. Kemp said she expects the school to fill to its capacity of 778 next year as it absorbs students from some of the closed schools.