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A SCHOOL WITH Guardian Angels

The song sung by schoolchildren in uniform blue drifts out of the classroom, down the hallway and into a neighborhood where crack dealers gather on street corners and walls are painted with graffiti too ugly for the eyes of children.

"This little light of mine," the tiny voices sing. "I'm gonna let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, Hallelujah. This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

St. Peter Claver, a 104-year-old Roman Catholic grade school named after a patron saint of slaves, is in what would seem to be harm's way _ smack in the middle of one of Tampa's poorest, most troubled neighborhoods.

Yet in what parents, teachers and alumni say is nothing short of a miracle, this school, which teaches mostly black children, remains unmolested. It has never been broken into, never hit by a stray bullet, never touched by the hands of drug users.

It's as though the spirit of the songs, prayers and the very faith of the nuns and others who teach here form a protective bubble around the red brick school to keep away the outside world _ the world that some of the children return to with the ring of the last bell.

It wasn't always this way. Ten days after the school opened in 1894, some white people, angry that the black school had been built in their neighborhood, burned it down. Refusing to back down, the two sisters of the Order of the Holy Names and the Jesuit priest who founded it rebuilt the school.

For years afterward, St. Peter Claver stood as proof that black people could have a place among white people, no matter how hard the white folks tried to chase them away.

In recent years, middle-class white residents have fled from the inner city to the suburbs, their houses replaced with subsidized, cinder-block buildings. But the school still stands as a symbol that something good and pure can exist among the horrors of drugs and poverty.

"Really, St. Peter Claver is one of the few signs of hope in this neighborhood. You can see them dealing drugs. All you have to do is look out a window," said Sister Thomas Joseph McGoldrick, the school's principal. "'But there seems to be an un-written respect for us here."

Close call

McGoldrick, 71, has spent more than 50 years in the order of St. Joseph, working in Catholic schools. She came to St. Peter Claver three years ago when the Diocese of St. Petersburg was considering closing the school in the Central Park Village neighborhood.

Her former supervisor begged her to come out of retirement and take over St. Peter Claver, which had undergone a succession of principals and needed stability.

"They wanted me to see if it could be saved," McGoldrick said of the school on the corner of Governor and Scott streets. "At first, I said, "No' but then I looked at it and I saw the need."

Like many inner city Catholic schools around the country, St. Peter Claver's enrollment was dropping. It was having a hard time attracting students from the neighborhood, many of whom were not Catholic and couldn't afford to pay the more than $2,000 a year for tuition and books.

Since she took over the school in the 1995-96 school year, with the help of the Rev. Ed Lamb, a priest at St. Peter Claver Church, enrollment has jumped from 80 students to 130. The school, taught by nuns and lay teachers, has added pre-kindergarten and plans next year to add the seventh grade.

McGoldrick says finding the money to keep it going is a daily struggle. Fifty of the students are getting tuition assistance from private donations, the diocese, fund raisers and the church. Only 5 percent of the students are Catholic.

McGoldrick also said that even though the economy was good this year, private donations to the school were down. It also depends on fund raisers, including a golf tournament scheduled Monday.

There also are a few faithful givers. One man sponsors 10 children each year, and another couple pays the tuition for one child, she said.

In recent years, Catholic school enrollment around the country has been increasing after years of steady decline, according to the Washington-based National Catholic Education Association. More than 150 schools of various grade levels have opened in the past seven years.

The jump, however, has been experienced in suburban neighborhoods and has eluded the inner city, where schools like St. Peter Claver have been steadily closing.

"The problem with these schools is that for years they were run out of the Catholic collection plate," said Denis Doyle, a Hudson Institute fellow, who specializes in education for the think-tank based in Indiana.

"But as the more affluent students move out into the suburbs, they are less likely to support a school that their children don't attend, so it creates a vicious cycle. Then, when you have students who aren't Catholic attending, they have a tougher time."

By every objective measure, St. Peter Claver should have closed its doors years ago, said Bishop Robert Lynch of the St. Petersburg diocese. It educates few Catholics and costs the diocese more and more money each year to keep it open. But Lynch said there is more to consider.

The school has a rich history. It was one of the few places in Tampa where black people could meet during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

It also has educated some of Tampa's most successful African-Americans, including Gilbert Casellas, who recently resigned as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone With the Wind.

It also continues to fill a need, Lynch said.

"One of the great contributions a church can make is to help kids, especially inner-city kids, raise their horizons beyond their neighborhood," Lynch said. "The neighborhood around it is not great, but St. Peter Claver helps the students see beyond the projects. That makes it worth it."

Here to stay

The role of McGoldrick, who wears tennis shoes and dresses rather than a habit and whose students often pop their heads into her doorway just to say hi, is part social worker, part fund-raiser, part marketing director and part educator.

She said she will never forget her first week at the school when a woman came to her office and was shocked to learn the nun was white.

"She said, "I wanted my child to go to an all-black school,' " McGoldrick said, chuckling as she recalled the visit. "I said, "This is an all-black school.' "

She said she has learned a lot working at the school because it has a healthy mix of middle class students and low-income students.

One student's parents have been in and out of jail, she said. For the longest time the child, who is being adopted by a family member, didn't know from day to day where he would be sleeping.

"One day, he came in here and said he wanted a new family," McGoldrick said. "What do you tell a child that says that?"

About 90 percent of the students come from outside the neighborhood and from all over the Tampa Bay area. About half go to the school because it is a family tradition _ either their parents or grandparents went to St. Peter Claver. Others see it as an alternative to public schools. Currently, all the students are African-American, but the school has had children of other races in the past, McGoldrick said.

Tampa police officer James Thomas and his wife, Juanette, enrolled their three children in St. Peter Claver after a public school tried to get one of their children, who is left handed, to become right handed.

They say they aren't bothered by the neighborhood, which Thomas is familiar with because it is part of his beat.

"There's a lot of people that hang around here that know they messed up their lives and they wouldn't want to mess up a kid's life," said Juanette Thomas, who volunteers at the school. "They kind of think it's cute to see the kids dressed in their little uniforms."

She said many of the children's grandparents also live in the neighborhood and watch out for the children.

Some of the children, like Shaquandra Williams, 9, walk home each day to their grandmothers' homes because their parents are at work.

Bobbing along the sidewalk in her blue and white plaid uniform, she looks like a sailor on shore leave who has just come in to port. She passes graffiti sprayed on walls, crime watch signs and broken beer bottles.

"It's easier when I stay with my grandmother because it's closer and I'm not late," Shaquandra said. "It's just the way it is here. There are some bad kids around here, but they leave me alone."

Stephanie Garrett, whose son Jamell is in kindergarten, said she drove around the neighborhood for days before deciding to enroll her son in the school. She said she and her husband had just moved to Tampa from South Carolina and were looking for a place to send Jamell.

"I had concerns," she said. "But my sister-in-law told me not to worry about it, that they don't hang out at the school. They really aren't around the school."

She said she also was concerned about Jamell being in an all-black school.

"We know that's not the way it is in the real world," said Garrett, who plans to put her son in an integrated middle school. "But after I came here, I fell in love with it. The classes are so small, and he gets a lot of one-on-one attention."

Father Lamb, who divides his time between the nearby church on Nebraska and the school, said he gets a kick out of watching the kids learn their prayers. He says Mass each Thursday in the school cafeteria.

"Whenever I'm having a bad day," he said, "this is where I come."

He said sometimes he walks the two blocks from his church to the school. He's always surprised to find that everyone knows who he is. "They say hi and ask me where my car is today," he said.

The closest Lamb ever came to having a problem was a few weeks ago when he went to open the school gate at 5 a.m. Someone approached him and asked if he had any drugs to sell. When Lamb, whom the kids call "Father Ed," said he was a priest, the man backed off.

Darrell Peterson, who lives across the street from St. Peter Claver, said the man who approached Lamb must not have been from the neighborhood because everyone around Central Park Village knows not to mess with the school.

"They've got respect for it," Peterson said of the residents. "It's like it's a church."

Goldrick said she recognizes that the relationship between the community and the school is special and delicate. She said police offered to put cameras on the school roof to monitor drug dealing, but she refused.

"That would just get (the drug dealers) mad at us, and we don't need that," she said.

Rather than mess with the drug dealers, McGoldrick prefers to rely on the same faith and prayers that have carried St. Peter Claver through more than a century.

She said by doing that she believes the school will remain on the corner of Governor and Scott streets for years to come.

As if to reaffirm her faith and to answer the ghosts of the past who burned it down, a banner hangs above the front door, next to a cross.

"Here to stay," it says. "Will Never Sway."