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Jamerson school fulfilling dream of namesake

One after another, those who knew Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. praised him Thursday night at the dedication of the elementary school that bears his name.

Pinellas County Schools superintendent Howard Hinesley called him a gentleman, one of the finest people he has ever known.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas County Classroom Teachers Association, said the educator-turned-legislator's life was all about service.

A half-dozen speakers delivered the poignant tributes to a standing-room crowd of more than 400 in the cafeteria of the school at 1200 37th St. S. One of three new schools built south of Central Avenue to accommodate the district's controlled choice plan, Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary opened in August.

Throughout his life, Mr. Jamerson's passion was education, Jamerson principal Robert Poth told the audience of teachers, students and community members.

"He saw education as the great equalizer, the vehicle for social change," Poth said. "He will be the guiding light for the thousands of students who will pass through the doors of this school."

A year ago, some feared it would be a long time before thousands of students experienced Jamerson. Many parents, testing the waters of a new student assignment plan which offered them more choice in where their children could attend school, viewed the brand-new school as a gamble. Its math and engineering focus sounded good, and Poth's insistence that all teachers become nationally Board Certified was appealing.

But district officials wondered how many nonblack parents would be willing to leave their neighborhoods north of Central Avenue to attend the school, which is in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

They worried for good reason. Under the court order that ended forced busing for desegregation, a 42 percent cap on black student enrollment remains in effect until 2007. A scarcity of nonblack children at Jamerson would mean fewer opportunities for black students to attend a school close to home.

Last year, 80 percent of the students who applied to Jamerson were black. Even after the district balanced the ratio by assigning nonblack students, some black students were turned away.

Newly released figures from the second round of "controlled choice," which ended Nov. 1, indicate that more children overall are interested in attending Jamerson for the 2004-05 school year (Please see chart). Just as important, Poth says, more nonblack children chose the school this time.

"We had more nonblack students apply than we have seats for in the entire kindergarten," he said. "We'll have just as large a waiting list as we have kids in the class. And, you're talking about allowing about 65 kids to come in from the pool of African-American applicants."

In other words, now that the school is actually up and running, more parents are making it their first choice, a good sign for its future.

Poth attributes the school's popularity surge to two things: Parents who have become familiar with the school are telling other parents about it. And, the school is delivering on its promise to deliver a top-notch education.

If the trend continues, as Poth believes it will, he expects there will be a waiting list for all grades within a few years. He foresees a voluntarily desegregated population, the controlled choice plan's primary goal.

That would have pleased Mr. Jamerson. His widow, Leatha, said her husband would have done anything to ensure a child's opportunity to learn, including buying him a coat or a pair of shoes.

A portrait of the man who devoted his life to public service emerged during Thursday night's speeches. Mr. Jamerson, who died in April 2001 at age 53, grew up in St. Petersburg and was among the first African-American graduates of Bishop Barry High School, now St. Petersburg Catholic High School.

He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1982, where he served as Pinellas' first African-American representative. In 1984, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him Florida's fourth commissioner of education.

And at the level of the individual child in the individual schoolhouse _ where the teaching actually takes place _ at Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary School things appeared headed in a direction that would have pleased the man behind the name.

Leatha Jamerson pauses to look at a photograph of her late husband, for whom Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary School was named. Three years after his death, tributes to the educator and legislator flowed during the school's dedication.

Incoming kindergarten applications

Applications to Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary School

Black Nonblack Black Nonblack

2003-04 2003-04 2004-05 2004-05

Choice No. 1 32 16 40 41

Choice No. 2 41 27 49 30