Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.

The school of hope and last chances 09/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012 8:49pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Rays send down Chase Whitley, Andrew Kittredge; add Chih-Wei Hu, acitvate Alex Cobb

    Blogs

    After having to cover more than five innings following a short start by Austin Pruitt, the Rays shuffled their bullpen following Wednesday's game, sending down RHPs Chase Whitley and Andrew Kittredge,

    The Kittredge move was expected, as he was summoned to add depth to the pen Wednesday in advance of RHP Alex …

  2. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred moves closer to wanting a decision on Rays stadium

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called Wednesday for urgency from Tampa Bay area government leaders to prioritize and move quicker on plans for a new Rays stadium.

    MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talks with reporters at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
  3. Six home runs doom Rays in loss to Blue Jays (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — A curve that didn't bounce was the difference Wednesday as the Rays lost 7-6 to the Blue Jays in front of 8,264, the smallest Tropicana field crowd since Sept. 5, 2006.

    Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (11) greets center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) at the plate after his two run home run in the third inning of the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
  4. Jones: Stop talking and start building a new Rays stadium

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — It was good to see Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred at Tropicana Field on Wednesday, talking Rays baseball and the hope for a new stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay.

    Commissioner Rob Manfred is popular with the media on a visit to Tropicana Field.
  5. Ousted to political Siberia by Corcoran, Kathleen Peters sets sights on Pinellas Commission

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — The perks of power in Tallahassee are a coveted chairmanship, a Capitol office in a prime location and a prominent seat on the House floor. Now Rep. Kathleen Peters has lost all three, but here's the twist: Her trip to "Siberia" might actually help her reach the next step on the Tampa Bay political …

    Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, has been relegated to the back row in the State House chamber, moved to a fouth floor office and stripped of her job as chairwoman of a House subcommittee after a series of disagreements with House Speaker Richard Corcoran. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]