They held a ring toss at the fall festival and donated profits from a jewelry party. And when their kids perform, they pass a hat. Parents pool pocket change with more generous donations to pay the salary for a violin teacher shared by Mitchell and Gorrie elementary schools. Five years ago, the district cut the strings program in traditional elementary schools, as fiscal austerity strained culture budgets across the country. So the parents at the two South Tampa schools decided to pick up the tab for Todd Jefferis. He had been teaching their children nearly 10 years at that point.
Now, each school raises $36,000 a year and sends a monthly check to the district, which covers Jefferis' salary and benefits.
It's a fairly rare arrangement for the district, said spokesman Stephen Hegarty.
Mitchell Principal Joanne Baumgartner is grateful to have Jefferis and brags about his talent, dedication and humility.
Ask Jefferis about the value of kids learning violin and he points to second-graders slipping between curtains and onto the stage next to a converted storage room where he teaches.
"They're skipping recess to come here," he said, as he tuned a tiny violin.
Jefferis splits his time between the two schools, teaching more than 600 kids. He knows every one of his students by name, he said.
He worried at first that he wouldn't have time for them all, so he's taught them to work together. The children pair up at music stands and practice Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Pepperoni Pizza, a hybrid of the Suzuki method, Jefferis said. He starts teaching before the bell and continues past the bell, so kids won't miss any of the academics offered at other schools.
At the end of the class, Jefferis tied blue yarn around the scroll of 8-year-old Wes Proulxes' violin, a reward for mastering Go Tell Aunt Rhody. Wes knows 18 songs, and he said he can't wait to try a cello, because he loves the deep sound.
The schools perform throughout the year in the community, including today at a nursing home and in a Sweetbay Supermarket at noon. Next week, Gorrie students plan to play at the Tampa International Airport. A few years ago, they played in Hyde Park with other strings students from Wilson Middle and Plant High schools, many of them former students of Jefferis.
To raise money to keep the strings program, Mitchell parent Julie Pellecchia started the HeartStrings committee, which falls under the nonprofit Mitchell Foundation.
"I don't want to sound desperate," she said, "but we barely make it every year."
All kindergartners get a chance to play, and after that, students choose. Parents of those who choose to play are asked to pay $200, but not all can.
Some parents pay extra and the Gobioff Foundation, which supports the arts, gives a generous donation.
Even so, last year the pot was $10,000 short. The foundation filled in the gap.
Ultimately, Pellecchia said, the goal is for HeartStrings to fully cover the program. She said they're always looking for help. She worries that parents are tapped out.
Currently there are no plans to restore the program to the district, said Hegarty.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.