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When sinkhole and fire strike, two schools adjust


A bell sounds at Strawberry Crest High School, and teenagers flood the hallways. Girls hold hands with their boyfriends. Others shout at each other, asking about classes and lunch plans. Then they disappear into their classrooms.

Five minutes later, another group of students spill into the corridor. They are quieter. They file into line and grab hands. They are going to the restroom. Their teacher leads the way.

In January, Strawberry Crest opened its doors to 260 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Trapnell Elementary, where workers discovered a sinkhole beneath the school. More than 300 of Trapnell's preschool through second grade students temporarily use classrooms at nearby Bailey Elementary. At Seffner's McDonald Elementary, a November fire that damaged 15 classrooms forced students to share space and supplies.

There are some things you can't plan for — like electrical fires or sinkholes — but school administrators still try to keep students' lives somewhat normal under unexpected circumstances.

"We all just pick up and do whatever we need to do," said Krissy Perkins, assistant principal at Trapnell, where the technology specialist is now a restroom manager and the media specialist teaches P.E. "You really don't realize until you get into a position like this just how flexible people can be."

• • •

At McDonald, principal Dave McMeen said he had to decide within a weekend if he could keep students at the school or if he needed to ship them out to area schools.

Although the fire caused no structural damage, a layer of ash and soot covered everything because most classroom areas don't have contained rooms. Rolling cabinets or short, cubicle-style walls separate them.

After talking with Belfor Property Restoration contractors, who said they would be able to do renovations quickly, McMeen determined it would be better for kids to stay in school and move into portables or combined classrooms.

Students will bounce back as long as the school's leaders and teachers develop a plan to move forward, he said.

"You can't go back and change the past," he said.

Heidi Smith and Phyllis Parker, both kindergarten teachers at McDonald, shared teaching space in a portable for about four weeks during renovations.

Teachers in the affected classrooms lost materials. The students returned to their classrooms in January, but teachers await more than $50,000 in materials. They had to throw away anything with a porous surface, such as paper.

"It was very devastating because you go hunt for something, and you go, 'Oh, no. It's not here,' " Parker said.

But they found the bright side to sharing a small teaching space, Smith said. They taught to their strengths, dividing the teaching into subject areas. Parker headed math and science lessons, while Smith dealt with reading and writing.

"It really challenged us to be creative teachers," Smith said. They came up with revised lesson plans on the spot.

The kindergarteners, Smith said, seemed worried about only whether their classroom puppet made it out of the building unharmed. Otherwise, they acted as if the fire had never happened.

• • •

For Trapnell students, staying at school was never an option. Principal Rhonda Pulling and Perkins, the assistant principal, worked late the night before the move rearranging schedules and figuring out how to get teaching resources. They gave teachers 15 minutes to rush into their classrooms and grab what they needed.

At the time, Trapnell faculty members thought they would be gone for a week. When they return to school April 19, it will have been three months since they evacuated.

At Strawberry Crest, administrators set schedules so elementary school students never roam the halls at the same time as the high schoolers. A teacher always accompanies students to the restroom.

Kids at the high school love the rolling chairs in the media center, but 8-year-old Victoria Tirado-Vega longs for the playground when she's relegated to a square of grass for P.E.

She's glad her stay will be over soon, she said.

At first, "I thought we were staying here for the rest of the year," she said.

Her classmate Haylee Cooper, 8, said that when her mom broke the news to her that she would be attending high school for a little while, she felt excited.

"I'm like, 'Yay!' " she said.

Trapnell students at Bailey said they miss eating in the cafeteria. Space is tight, so they must eat lunch at their desks.

Six-year-old Emma Stephens, who is in kindergarten, likes going up and down the stairs at Bailey. She's a little jealous of her older brother, who temporarily attends classes at Strawberry Crest.

"At the other school, they say, if you're not at class, you have to go in the elevator," she said. Students arriving late to class at Strawberry Crest can take the elevator to save time, Perkins said.

Although the faculty tried to keep students' schedules intact, some activities were casualties of the move.

But that's not all bad. Trapnell kindergarten teacher Debbie Bagley said the death of one tradition is especially popular with kids.

"They were happy we don't nap," she said.

Hilary Lehman can be reached at or (813) 661-2441.

When sinkhole and fire strike, two schools adjust 04/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 4:57pm]
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