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Schools' efforts keep kids safe, dry

Hurricane Ivan was 350 miles distant from south Pinellas and heading farther away when local officials faced a weird dilemma. School was in session Wednesday, but a rising tide threatened to cut some students off from their low-lying homes.

Mid afternoon flooding in Coquina Key, Shore Acres and some areas of Madeira Beach kept school officials glued to weather channels and forced some to concoct back-up plans to ensure students would arrive home safely.

The greatest concern was for children who live in the Shore Acres area, where police set up roadblocks to prevent residents from driving into waters up to 2 feet deep.

Shore Acres Elementary principal Tim Owens allowed children to leave 10 minutes before the school's regular 1:45 p.m. dismissal time when he saw anxious parents lining up in the car circle. Most of the 150 children who live in Shore Acres were home before the streets became impassable, Owens said.

The school itself, on 62nd Avenue NE, had no flood damage thanks to a recent $13.7-million reconstruction project.

"Our old school, in a similar situation, would have had problems," Owens said. "The new school is high and dry."

The threat of rising water was more of an issue at North Shore Elementary where school lets out at 2:40 p.m. The school, at 35th Avenue NE, experienced no flooding, but about a dozen of its 550 children live in Shore Acres, said principal Juanita Deason.

Deason called campus police when she heard about the road blocks to make sure the bus that transports children to Shore Acres would be able to get through.

"I gave my phone number to the bus driver," she said. "Once she got to the stop, she called me to let me know the children had gotten there safely."

Personnel at Riviera Middle School began calling parents when they realized buses that were dropping off elementary schoolchildren were delayed and might not get to the school in time for the regular 4:05 p.m. dismissal. Principal Al Bennett allowed eight teachers who live in Shore Acres and several whose children attend schools nearby to leave early.

"One mom got caught in the flooding," assistant principal Jeannie Springer said. "Another one who went to pick up her child told us she couldn't get back to Shore Acres."

Bus hold-ups caused no problems at Meadowlawn Middle School, where about 40 students live in areas affected by flooding.

"Transportation was phenomenal," principal Greg Cardonne said. "They sent two back-up buses for the ones that were delayed."

Transportation director Terry Palmer said this was not the first time his office has had to make alternate arrangements for children who live in low lying areas. He began monitoring the tide situation early Wednesday and worked through area superintendents to keep schools informed of the buses' whereabouts.

"We typically know in advance about tide times and how much above average the tide is going to be," he said. "But you can't always predict these things."

Palmer advised middle schools there could be some delays and suggested that principals whose children live in Coquina Key, Shore Acres or Madeira Beach call parents to pick up their children. He stayed in touch with bus drivers via dispatch radios.

"They know that if they get there and can't drop the children off safely, they should take them back to the school," Palmer said. "If the kids don't come home, the first place parents check is with the schools."

The safety of children is always the school district's first concern, said spokesman Ron Stone. His office had made tentative arrangements with campus police to provide a central location where children could be supervised until their parents could pick them up, but the schools were able to work out details on their own.

Officials at Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School, a private school on Chancellor Street NE in Shore Acres, made a decision early in the afternoon to give parents the option of picking up their children before the regular dismissal time. Most of the school's 400 students live within a 2-mile radius of the school.

"When parents would call and say, "We can't get in to get our children,' that was not a problem for us," director Holly Carlson said. "We told them, "We're not going anywhere.' We just wanted to reassure parents that the school was not in any danger."

By the time police sealed access to Shore Acres, only 40 elementary and middle schoolchildren and 20 preschool children were still on campus.

"We actually had a lot of fun," Carlson said. "We played games out on the patio. The kids studied and did their homework. A couple of our teachers waded through the water and brought pizza back. When their parents started showing up, the kids didn't want to leave."