It isn't easy trying to fill the needs you see day in and day out, particularly when you work at a Title 1 school where 76 percent of the students meet the guidelines to qualify for free or reduced lunch.
You learn early on that not everyone grows up in a home where education is a priority, and that you can't always count on parents having the skills needed to help with homework. Real life and the economic climate mean that many can't afford to bring classroom snacks or buy that yearbook for the fifth-grader who will be moving on to middle school, even though every kid deserves a tangible record of their elementary school memories.
Filling those kinds of needs is just what Becky Bishop has her heart set on. It's also what probably led her to be named the 2008-09 Head Start Community Advocate of the Year by the Pasco County Prekindergarten/Head Start/Early Head Start Program and earned her the Community Citizen of the Year Award from the Zephyrhills Grange.
"I love my job. I like looking out for the little guys," says Bishop, who is in her 10th year as parent involvement coordinator at West Zephyrhills Elementary.
Bishop's value for education is ingrained. Her father was a school superintendent in Illinois, she said, so being involved came naturally. She spent 18 years as a substitute teacher and years before that volunteering and serving as PTA president at West Zephyrhills Elementary, which all four of her children attended.
Her job, which is funded by Title 1, is to help low-income parents meet the educational needs of their children. Throughout the year she organizes and hosts parenting classes and fun, educational family nights. The grandmother of six who married her high school sweetheart before settling in Zephyrhills also hosts a support group for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.
Studies show that parent involvement - at school and at home - is crucial for a student's educational success, Bishop said. That can be a tough nut to crack.
"Some of our parents don't have a high school diploma," she said. "Some are Spanish speaking, so there's a language barrier. Some can't read. And the requirements change from year to year. For kindergarten it used to be that the kids just had to know their colors. Now they have to be able to read."
So what's the answer?
"It takes a community ... to make sure children have a well-balanced education," she said. To facilitate that, Bishop has taken on extra roles at her school and serves as a liaison to the local community. She's the business community chairwoman, volunteer coordinator, Assist Believe and Care coordinator, school publicity contact and a School Advisory Council rep.
"I wear a lot of hats," Bishop said as she surveyed her office, still somewhat cluttered with boxes of school supplies donated by First Congregational Church of Zephyrhills. "You should have seen it in here a week ago," she said, flashing a grin. "I didn't even have a path to walk through."
Her work in generating those kind of donations for West Zeph kids is greatly valued.
"We couldn't do what we do for our families without her. She is from this community. She is very well respected and has connections in this community and does well in getting resources for our children," said principal Emily Keene. "And this is a wonderful community. West Zephyrhills Elementary is going to be 50 this year. The school has been here so long that the community is very involved. Even though it's not a wealthy area, it is amazing the generosity this small-town community has for our school. They take care of their own."
Bishop rattled off a laundry list of givers: the employees of First National Bank of Pasco and Florida Hospital Zephyrhills, who recently donated backpacks and school supplies. The gentleman who dropped off boxes of toothpaste and toothbrushes for the children in the Head Start Pre-K program. The food and time donated by a slew of folks who prepared a turkey dinner that fed close to 196 on the Saturday before Thanksgiving last year.
"We had so much fun. We laughed. We cried. We met people we never met before," Bishop said. "And it was a good meal, too."
There's the "Shop With a Cop" program, in which members of the Zephyrhills Police Department take students shopping for school clothes; the socks, underwear, jackets and snacks that are donated to the Head Start program by the residents of Betmar Acres and Sundance mobile home parks; the Easter bags from the Ladies of the Moose Lodge; the dictionaries from the Elks; and the nonperishable foods that come in to stock a year-round food pantry at the school because families need help after the holiday season, too. Add to that the ongoing donations from local businesses like Sweetbay, Village Inn and Chalet Florist.
West Zephyrhills students try to give back. Last year they made cookies and brownies for the local Meals on Wheels, and they have an ongoing grandparent program with the folks at Betmar.
"A lot of people care and they want to help," Bishop said.
"It's all about the kids. It's all about the children."
Michele Miller can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 869-6251.
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School turns 50
Two celebrations will mark West Zephyrhills Elementary's 50th birthday.
The community is invited to a party from 1 to 3 p.m. Nov. 6 at the school, 37900 14th Ave., Zephyrhills.
Former faculty members are welcome to a celebration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 16.
For information, call the school at (813) 794-6300.