Lourdes Plunkett could have taken the easy path. • She taught at A-rated Pine View Elementary in a solidly middle-class Land O'Lakes neighborhood. The school is just five minutes from her own home. • But when D-rated Rodney B. Cox Elementary, where nearly every child receives free lunch, put out the call for a mentor teacher to help the school restructure, Plunkett heard her muse.
"A teacher is an artist, and any artist would like the opportunity to be creative," Plunkett explained of her decision to transfer to Cox, a 30-minute drive away. "I could be as creative as I wanted to be because of the amount of work that needs to be done for these students."
As a general rule, teachers go the other way.
Between the end of the 2007-08 school year and the start of this one, 142 Pasco instructional personnel transferred from an existing school to another existing school. Of those, 63 percent moved to a lower poverty school from a higher poverty school.
Cox lost nine of its 27 teachers. All headed off to wealthier schools, including Lake Myrtle Elementary and New River Elementary. Eight of their nine replacements came from outside Pasco County.
Similarly, Hudson Elementary, which also faces restructuring under federal accountability guidelines, lost about half its staff, with the majority going to schools that had lower levels of students receiving free lunch.
Some districts, including Hillsborough, have offered top educators extra money to lure them to low-performing, low-income neighborhood schools. But Pasco has no such incentive. And even if it did, it wouldn't have been what drew Plunkett, a fourth-year teacher pursuing her doctorate in education, to swim against the tide.
She tasted the different challenge of teaching a small number of Pine View children who did not fit the school's main demographic. Watching them grow, and knowing she played a part in their success, made her want to do more.
"These children touched my heart," Plunkett said. "Because of these children, I determined that my passion for teaching could be well used in a school like Cox."
Principal Leila Mizer initially worried that she would have trouble attracting teachers to replace those who left and to take on the "achievement coach" positions such as the one Plunkett filled. She attributed the lackluster economy, which has forced many districts to let educators go, as a key factor behind getting a strong applicant pool.
Fourteen people vied for Plunkett's post. Mizer said she never doubted Plunkett from the moment the job interview ended.
And since Plunkett arrived, Mizer added, she's proven a great addition. She quickly joined several of the school's leadership groups, she remains on campus after classes daily to help teachers and students, and she's "just willing to do anything."
When Mizer sent out a note saying the school might qualify for a mini-grant, Plunkett delivered a complete application less than 24 hours later.
"She is just a very wonderful asset to our school," Mizer said.
In the classroom, Plunkett is "on" all the time. She expects the same of her class.
"I am having a wonderful day," she said as she entered her third-grade classroom on a recent morning.
"Main idea!" the students responded in unison.
"Right now I have some visitors in the classroom," she continued.
"Details!" they shouted.
Plunkett continued for a few more minutes before asking the students to give their own examples. This was part of a "focus lesson" to review past reading material, a teaching strategy designed to ensure that children don't lose knowledge from past instruction while learning something new. No moment was wasted.
Even as she turned on an overhead projector attached to a computer, she gave a running commentary and asked questions.
What are the two machines doing? Talking to each other. What's another word for that? Communicating. What word is similar to communicate? Communication. Tell me more words that end in t-i-o-n.
And so on.
"She teaches us lots of things and we learn more," said Javion Hanner, 7, during a brief break. "That's how come she's a good teacher. She helps us learn."
"She makes it fun by telling us to play some games," added Maria Stefanski, 8.
Plunkett, a 43-year-old mother of four who was an airline reservation specialist before becoming a teacher, said she has a personal reason for wanting to see the students at Cox succeed.
Her father, Ricardo Guerrero, grew up in Peru living in poverty as one of eight children. His mother was illiterate, his father absent. Yet he overcame such obstacles to become a wealthy attorney in the nation's capital of Lima.
"He is my inspiration," Plunkett said of her dad, who passed away in July. "I believe in Cox there are many children like my dad, who only need that opportunity. … If my father could, any kid can. That's what I always have in my mind."
She praised the teachers who remained at Cox rather than leaving, saying they share her passion. She added that she looked forward to helping them any way she can.
"It is a choice to be at Cox," Plunkett said. "This is not just any school."
Times computer assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.