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Published Apr. 29, 2013

Lacoochee Elementary School in east Pasco County hit the front page of the paper last week when it was announced that all of the faculty would be dismissed at the end of the school year because it has been a D school for three years running. Indeed there is room for improvement.

But there are many unanswered questions, among them, why announce these huge changes during the FCAT and well before the end of the year? Will the most recent test results not count?

For the past five years or so, I have been a volunteer at this school. I wanted to bring my energy and expertise as a retired school director (SunFlower School in Gulfport) to this school that's just a stone's throw away across the Green Swamp, where I now live. Of course, I love working with kids.

During the last school year, our local garden club received a grant to make a community garden at the school. The garden is now beautiful, full of kids and bursting with vegetables for everyone to use. But it has been a long, hard slog without much support from the administration and most of the teachers.

The Lacoochee community is unique. It is among the poorest communities in Florida. Once it was a hub of commerce with a lumber mill and high employment. When the mill closed, Lacoochee fell into stark decline and became a locale of crime, drugs and violence. In the last seven years the community has been working on a turnaround, and with amazing help from Withlacoochee Electric, Habitat for Humanity, major grants from HUD and others, much is happening, including housing and infrastructure. A great new community center is about to spring up and will be completed in a year across the street from the school to house the Boys and Girls Club, medical clinic and meet many community needs. Toward this effort, the school is key.

The majority of kids at the school are Mexican, and many of them are undocumented. The free or reduced-price program enrolls about 95 percent of the students. They come to school and in kindergarten they know no English. Their parents know no English. This is way beyond their comfort zone, but these gritty people so value education, they persevere. In five years, their kids will be winning the science fair and be able to read anything in two languages. No question, this is hard. Lacoochee School has been the beacon for these people.

Karen Marler, the previous principal, knew this well. She had on the staff a talented bilingual parent/community liaison. She also had on the staff a woman, Clara Barlow, who did nothing but deal with the Latino community of parents. This woman had those Latino parents in workshops and working in the school, learning English, having fun and being included in the fabric of school life.

Under the new principal, Shirley Ray, those support people were gone, and the whole school hunkered down for the dreaded FCATs. I understood that these cuts were made because of money shortages. The "state" took over, and those overseers seemed to be on campus often.

So now we are here, seeing the results of bare-bones education in a unique and desperately poor community. It will take Hercules to do any better than our current principal.

Most of the teachers are working as hard as they can. Seems that too much of their time is devoted to meetings with state supervisors and FCAT prep. There are many substitutes in classes every day. Fear is palpable here. Few smiles, rarely a "Good morning!" Of course they do not have any time for the garden and the antic joy the kids have in going there.

This unique school continues to have such strengths, it makes me weep. The media specialist is Michelle Martinez, who works two full-time jobs, raised the money and takes the Lacoochee school Girl Scout troop to Washington, D.C., on the train. (You can't fly if you're undocumented.)

She accompanies me to the garden and plants potatoes. She knows each child's taste in books. She masterminds the technical issues. Our Officer Friendly collects bikes for kids who don't have them. He takes his Boy Scouts on trips to the North Carolina mountains. Many teachers do extra for their students. Principal Ray chaperoned the train trip to D.C.

Evidently, there will be a new principal. We need a widely educated principal who understands the community here and has great energy and the vision of inclusiveness. The problem of lack of communication must be addressed. Our new principal has to have the idealism I see in so many teachers here already. Our new principal has to be a joyful and energizing leader, willing to listen and learn.

Kurt Browning, the new Pasco superintendent of education, faced tough options directed by the state, and made the right call. This school needs to keep on functioning in Lacoochee. It would be a huge rip in the fabric of this community to close the school and reassign kids to other schools, which was another option. Becoming a charter school was not appropriate.

Some turnover is a hard way to bring needed stability, but Lacoochee Elementary is too important to give up on.

Molly Barnes retired as co-director of SunFlower School in Gulfport in 2004.