ST. PETERSBURG — It's where the city's first African-American city manager spent his early school days, as did Oscar nominee and Yale graduate Angela Bassett.
At the height of the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King brought her classically trained voice to raise money — in $1 and $1.50 increments — for that same school, considered an institution in the city's African-American community.
Decades later, though, amid hand-wringing over abysmal graduation rates and disproportionate incarceration of African-American males, Happy Workers Children's Center — founded 82 years ago to rescue black children from the streets — grapples with staying on task.
Bleak finances and a lean and insufficiently trained staff put Happy Workers' license in jeopardy this year and sent board members scrambling to save the school.
They begged for donations, from paint for aging buildings to new toys to replace those deemed old and unsafe. Two members threw in their own resources to buoy the school's foundering finances.
"There were challenges on every front,'' said board treasurer Angela Parrish, who took on a temporary leadership spot in February to rescue the ailing school.
As part of that effort, a call went out to the African-American community, in effect a reminder of Happy Workers' history and continuing work in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The result was the addition of two new board members. Then, a few days ago, a new executive director, Evadne Tilbury, was hired. Tilbury, a former program consultant for Coordinated Child Care, was hired for her experience in early childhood programs and familiarity with Happy Workers.
Parrish is optimistic.
"We're in better shape than I have seen the school in since I joined the board," said Parrish, who has been on Happy Workers' board for two years.
The retired investment consultant has spent the past few months poring over spreadsheets, interviewing candidates for the director post, applying for grants, attending community meetings and seeking input from child care experts.
"I love Angie's energy,'' said Maria Scruggs-Weston, who lives near the school, which is at 920 19th St. S. Scruggs-Weston, a former mayoral candidate, recently accepted an invitation to join the Happy Workers board.
"If Happy Workers is to be around another 80 years, it has to be grounded in the community,'' she said.
Happy Workers got its start in 1929, when Willie Lee McAdams, married to a Presbyterian minister, became concerned about the small children she saw playing in the streets while their parents worked.
"The vision that Mrs. McAdams had for the children in the Midtown community was one that resonated with me,'' said Virginia B. Irving, who led Happy Workers from 1989 to 2008.
Irving said McAdams, an African-American, was able to get white congregations to support her mission.
"I think she was smart enough to realize that if she was going to succeed in it, she had to seek support outside the community,'' Irving said, adding that most black people were too poor to contribute back then.
Through the years, Happy Workers' children were exposed to cultural opportunities their parents often could not afford, including trips to museums and outings to the Florida Orchestra. It was one of the things that impressed Gregory Duckett when he joined the board about 30 years ago.
"They had a lot of things that other day cares didn't have," he said.
But the past few years have been difficult.
"With the economy going in the dumps, everything just fell apart,'' said Duckett, a retired chemist and former St. Petersburg NAACP branch treasurer.
In October, the Pinellas County License Board for Children's Centers and Family Day Care Homes sent Happy Workers "a notice of intent to revoke license," citing violations dating back a year. Problems included inaccurate records, improper supervision of children, building disrepair and inappropriate discipline, including a teacher — since fired — who taped a 1-year-old's mouth with masking tape to stop him from crying. Fines had been racking up.
That's when the board asked Parrish, recently retired from Aon Corp. in Tampa, to step in as the school's temporary, unpaid director. She met with the licensing board and agreed to hire a consultant and implement recommended remedies. The school was allowed to start fresh under a new corporation, Happy Workers Learning Center. In April, it passed its reinspection.
During a recent visit to the center, which has about 85 students, operations specialist Jennie Henry gave a tour of classrooms where eager children learned colors, molded Play-Doh and munched Goldfish snacks.
Parrish said more than half of the students' tuition is subsidized by Coordinated Child Care. For the remainder, many of whom are on the agency's waiting list for assistance, rates are on a sliding scale, she said.
With concern growing about African-American children lagging behind the rest of the student population, Parrish wants Happy Workers to boost its program for infants to 3-year-olds. James P. McHale, department chair of the psychology department at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, will work with the school's new director to implement "the current best thinking in early childhood development," she said.
The community has responded to the school's recent request for feedback, Parrish said.
"We wanted to find out what it is that the school should do to be relevant going forward,'' she said.
"It seemed like when I got involved, there wasn't a lot of involvement from the community,'' she said. "When you start having financial difficulties, you think, doesn't anybody care? As it turns out, many people care. But we needed to connect back to the community and connect it back to Happy Workers.''
Irving, the retired director, sees value in that connection.
"Happy Workers is something that stands as a symbol of what it means to have community, what it means to stand up for children in times of great need. It's the last remaining icon of the African-American community there,'' she said.
"So many successful people in this community had their beginnings at Happy Workers. Angela (Bassett) came and spent a day with us when I was there, and she visited each classroom. … I know that there are other members of the community who received their foundation for success at Happy Workers, and if they knew of its plight at this time, would step forward.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.