WIMAUMA — When the clock strikes 3, the kids skip out of their classrooms, smiling from ear to ear.
It's not because the school day is over. They smile like that all day long, said Mark Haggett, principal of the Wimauma Academy, operated by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association or RCMA.
When the school year ends, many don't want to go, Haggett said.
That used to be especially true for the fifth-graders, who before this year were forced to leave the pre-K through fifth-grade charter school for regular public middle schools.
With a plan to break ground on a new middle school moving right along, Haggett can promise his older students three more years.
The school is still about $900,000 shy of its $1.8 million goal, but no matter, Haggett said.
If donations don't make up the difference before construction begins this winter, school officials will head to the bank for a loan.
"We promised our parents," Haggett said with a shrug.
Walking through the open-air hallways, Haggett greets students and parents by name. They wave back and say "Hello" and "Hola."
"It's kind of like we're a family," Haggett said.
Central to the school's mission is that kind of easy familiarity, hammered in with hyper-individualized teaching. That means small class sizes, lots of field trips, activities that adhere to students' Hispanic culture and teacher visits to all of the students' homes.
A majority of the kids come from families of migrant workers, and nearly all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their families' incomes, according to RCMA. The average parent education level is third grade.
When the charter school opened in 2000, it served kindergarten, first, second, sixth, seventh and eighth grades. At the time, officials thought it best to let kids go to regular schools between grades three and five and bring them back when they were older, Haggett said.
Five years later, the school decided to keep the kids straight through their grades as long as possible. But it was too expensive to teach past fifth, and school officials dropped the middle school.
Haggett said he swore to bring it back, all the while worrying that his students would slip through the cracks when they left Wimauma Academy's bubble.
Finally, the plans took shape, and the capital campaign began soliciting donations. A miniature model of the new middle school building now sits in the window of the front office.
Parents and students thanked Haggett.
"I was kind of sad at the end of last year," said 10-year-old Janely Rodriquez, who left fourth grade thinking her next year at the academy would be her last.
"But then they told us we would have a middle school, and we could stay," Janely said. "I was so excited."
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The new facility will have six 870-square-foot classrooms, a teacher workroom and clinic, a cafeteria, kitchen, media center and an administrative center, according to the project plans. Holmes Hepner and Associates Architects of Tampa designed the building to be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.
Administrators plan to open the doors for the 2011-2012 year, with the current 40 fifth-graders becoming the middle school's first two sixth grade classes. Each class will have 20 kids, said RCMA spokesman Bill Coats. Long-term, there will be just one class limited to 24 students per grade.
Money flowed quickly toward the beginning of the campaign, with more than $250,000 raised within the first month and another $600,000 by 2009, Haggett said.
In February, a $100,000 gift from a St. Petersburg Times reader that was matched by the Walton Family Foundation made the situation seem even brighter.
But since then, it has been "slow going," Coats said.
Coats said RCMA's small administrative budget doesn't allow for a full-time fundraiser position, which makes it tough for the lean organization to spend a lot of time soliciting donations.
The recession doesn't help much either.
Haggett said what's important is keeping his promise.
Cristina Macario, mother of fifth-grade student Emmanuel Valdez, said she wouldn't want to put her son anywhere else.
"He wants to be here forever," Macario said in Spanish. "And when he's happy, Mom's happy."
She looked over at Emmanuel, who was fidgeting with his backpack. He turned to smile.
"Perfecto," Macario said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.