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Kids roam halls where bugs, beasts and vandals ruled

In the 1940s, children dared to enter Rio Vista Elementary School's haunting atmosphere.

"As a teenager, my friends and I would chase the bats and owls out of the school, climb the broken stairway and play ghost," Dolores Bennett wrote in the Evening Independent. "Surrounding trees and no streetlights gave a very sinister appearance to the old school."

Seven years after its 1927 opening, Rio Vista fell victim to the Depression and closed. Vandals, rodents and beasts roamed its hallways and classrooms for 16 years.

The school reopened in 1950 to battle bees, disease, rattlesnakes and limited space. In 1984, NBC news honored Rio Vista. Today, it is Pinellas County's second oldest standing school and still embraces a back-to-basics format.

"We're No. 1," Rio Vista students have chanted when guests visit. "Because we don't use bad words and we're quiet. Because our teacher is teaching us our work. Because we're the best."

In the mid 1920s, J. Kennedy Block's Rio Vista Subdivision was an elite community in need of a school. A building near Fourth Street N and Diagonal Road was chosen in 1925; principal Lillian Walker and teacher Beatrice Bickley guided 50 pupils.

The Boulevard Bay Land and Development Co. later donated eight lots for a two-story, $34,850 school. Rio Vista Elementary, sporting Spanish architecture and a red-tile roof, opened in 1927 at 8131 Macoma Drive N. Walker and Bickley taught amid the Depression.

But developers fled the economic crunch. Rio Vista's enrollment was slashed, and the school closed in 1934. One year later, its students retreated to Pinellas Park Elementary.

Rio Vista deteriorated and developed a haunting mystique. Children sang and played ukuleles to maintain the courage to enter the empty stairwells of the forsaken school. "Vandals, goats, chickens, snakes, owls and weary travelers occupied the building," the Independent noted. "Doors and windows were broken, floors removed and toilet fixtures stolen."

Developer William "Bill" Wiley, encouraged by the postwar real estate boom, circulated a petition in 1950 to reopen Rio Vista. Under superintendent Floyd T. Christian that year, the school underwent a $38,644 remodeling; nearby lots were purchased for $2,992.

The school reopened in fall 1950 with principal Elsie Miller in charge of five teachers and 150 students. Rio Vista grew: a new cafeteria ($38,851 in 1950), four new classrooms ($40,158 in 1957) and three more rooms in 1965 ($43,156). Overcrowding, however, plagued the school.

"One class of fifth-graders meets on the stage," the Independent wrote. "There is no clinic or bed for sick or injured children." Additions in the late 1960s gave Rio Vista a total of 19 classrooms.

A diarrhea outbreak in 1967 afflicted 50 students. "We simply don't know the cause," principal Leonard D. Jones said then. In October 1969, an 18-inch rattlesnake bit student Robert Hershey. Principal Robert Marrs withdrew the venom from the thumb of Hershey's right hand after the bite. Hershey, 11, recovered at Mound Park Hospital and made history as the first student in the school system to be snake bitten.

Creatures thrived in Rio Vista's swampy surroundings and entered classrooms at will. "Bees, snakes and mosquitoes are all attracted," the Independent noted about the school that lacked air conditioning and kept its doors open.

Mosquito repellent was an office supply. In September 1980, nearly 30 students suffered bee stings, and by January 1981's fall term, principal Faye Kerrigan had killed four snakes.

In 1983 under Kerrigan, the school's drainage system was improved. Kerrigan toured Europe, Japan, Mexico and the United States as a trapeze artist with the famed Zacchini family circus before teaching.

"She was a dynamo," said Mary Lou Price, who worked under Kerrigan and is now secretary and bookkeeper at Rio Vista. "A high-energy person."

As principal from 1981 to 1987, Kerrigan insisted on parent participation and strict discipline. "I believe paddling works," noted a student in 1984, "especially when Mrs. Kerrigan does it."

An NBC news feature in 1984 extolled Rio Vista for its student conduct and educational excellence.

In 1985, the floodwaters of Hurricane Elena swept through the campus. More than 1,800 library books were destroyed.

After 59 years of battling adversity, Rio Vista today boasts one of the largest English for Speakers of Other Languages programs in the county. Students from Bosnia and Bulgaria daily pass by the flagpole that fronted the school in 1927. Atop the pole rests an eagle emblem that once inspired Civil War soldiers.

"We concentrate on the basics," said principal Wayne Whitney, who expects an enrollment of about 500 students this fall. "We're a well-kept secret, a home-style school."

_ Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzelmsn.

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