Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Education

The school of hope and last chances

The building is more than a century old, vintage brick and beautiful, a city school that somehow survived.

First it was Hillsborough High and later Jefferson, and today it stands near a hardscrabble corner of Tampa Heights as a school with a feeling of last chances, and also hope.

The first thing you notice in the halls of D.W. Waters Career Center (home of the Cheetahs) is how remarkably clean it is — not a single crumpled Skittles wrapper on the gleaming wood floors and no scribblings on the walls, nothing like the daily messiness of my suburban high school.

Principal Veronica Knight Morgan remembers some graffiti a few years back. It's just not tolerated. This makes me think of the "broken window theory" police use, and the idea that a single smashed pane that isn't fixed sends a message that no one cares if the rest falls apart. Clearly, someone cares.

The current student body numbers about 200. They land here from traditional schools, a grade level or two or more behind. Here the focus shifts: They work toward high school equivalency diplomas, career certification diplomas and practical job training. Teenage mothers have a place here too, and a chance.

In a professional kitchen, they learn culinary skills — the most popular classes. They take courses in landscaping or digital design. In a classroom with hospital beds and life-sized dummies in pajamas, students in scrubs take notes on how to be medical assistants and home health aides.

I watch a teacher pit tables of students against each other to see which team answers anatomy questions fastest. The students are tall, close to being grownups, but the winners laugh and cheer like the kids they are.

"My total focus is making sure they can support their families when they're 35," Morgan says. "It's a 100 percent dropout-prevention program within our walls."

It seems a miracle that some students get to class at all. Some live in hotels or foster care. Others miss school because they are needed to translate English at parents' doctor appointments. Teachers see kids checking jail websites for their fathers and mothers. A regularly tardy student turned out to be living in the family car where, without benefit of an alarm clock, they got up when the sun woke them.

There are parents who care but are bone-weary working two jobs, and parents who see school as a waste. Morgan says these kids have had to fight for everything. "And one-on-one," she says, "they are the nicest kids."

Last year, fewer than 50 walked the stage for commencement. "We look at the ones who make it," says assistant principal Glen Stewart. "We focus on that."

A success story? Morgan was out shopping recently when she ran into a former student finishing community college, working at a bank and just promoted to head teller.

Generous businesses donate so kids have backpacks and uniforms, but there are never enough of those benefactors. School lunches come all the way from across the county, from Plant City, and this day they are late. (A big deal if it's the biggest meal of your day.) Morgan announces the delay and starts asking around the office about popcorn to tide kids over.

I ask: Do students ever just disappear?

"All the time," she says, but she has today to deal with lunch, and popcorn, and her kids.

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