Hudson Elementary staff, families hope to halt proposal to close school

The Pasco County superintendent has recommended shutting down the campus in 2021.
Students arrive for classes at Hudson Elementary School on Nov. 12, 2018. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Students arrive for classes at Hudson Elementary School on Nov. 12, 2018. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Published Nov. 12, 2018

Several parents, students and staff lugged food, drinks and other supplies as they arrived at Hudson Elementary School for classes Monday morning.

The school had planned its annual pre-Thanksgiving feast for later in the evening, and anticipated nearly 500 people would attend. Over the past three years, the long-struggling school has boosted community and parent involvement, making Hudson Elementary more central to its neighborhood than it had been in years.

"The building is more than just walls," fourth-grade teacher Kristin Matthewson said.

Such strong relationships made the news that Pasco County district leaders want to close Hudson in 2021 hard to swallow for just about everyone attached to the school.

The subject was fresh on everyone's mind a week after they learned of the proposal, which would send most Hudson children to Northwest Elementary and a smaller contingent to Gulf Highlands Elementary. The plan also calls for closing down Mittye P. Locke Elementary further south on the U.S. 19 corridor.

More advanced academic offerings are also part of the proposal.

PTA president Joanne Delli Paoli, whose granddaughter is in third grade, said the superintendent's recommendation was devastating.

"I was upset. I cried. My granddaughter cried," Delli Paoli said. "The principal and staff, they're wonderful. I'm trying to do anything to keep the kids coming back."

She said a petition had already begun circulating, and within days had eight pages of signatures supporting the school.

"We'll be going to the [School Board] meeting on the fourth [of December] to voice our opinions," Delli Paoli said.

Opinions are not in short supply on the campus.

Kathy Brinkman, whose daughters and grandchildren have attended Hudson, worried about the fate of children in the poorest communities, which are the ones potentially losing their schools.

Lacoochee Elementary in remote northeastern Pasco also is recommended for closure.

Brinkman noted the school district has distributed studies relating to trauma education, telling teachers to be aware of children's needs beyond the classroom. The poorest students often have the greatest issues to be overcome.

"The students at Hudson deserve that consistency," she said.  "Instead of closing the three poorest schools in the county, they should be protecting them."

Special education teacher Rick Praitano shared the concerns. He noted that many students in the school, and not just those with special needs, have trouble adjusting to change, and their lives are precarious already.

"If they closed it and word keeps getting out, it's going to go downhill fast," Praitano said. "A lot of them in the school already feel like they aren't heard, that their voices don't matter."

Parent Sheryl Taylor, whose daughter is in kindergarten, said she loved everything about Hudson Elementary. She said if the board decided to shut it down, she wouldn't wait to learn all the details.

"I will put in for a school of choice before it happens, where I have a say where she's going," Taylor said. "I feel sad doing that, because I really like this school. But I would rather have us find a niche before it's too late."

Students weren't thrilled with the idea, either. They worried about children's ability to get to a school nearly five miles farther away, where there's not a city bus stop right in front.

"I don't think it would be fair to the younger scholars," fifth grader MacKenna Johnson said. "They would have to travel farther. And it might be difficult on the parents."

Fifth grader Iris Garmendiz wrote a letter to superintendent Kurt Browning over the weekend, expressing her disappointment with the recommendation.

She talked about how the teachers celebrate the students, let them take books home to read, provide learning dinners at the Monday evening Cougar Cafe, and other positive aspects of the school.

"Sometimes kids don't want to leave this school. It's really good," Iris said. "If he shuts this school down, everyone would have to leave. That's not fair to the kids who want to stay here. … He might listen to me."

Principal Dawn Scilex said she was "shocked" to learn of the administration's proposal for her school. She joined the campus three years ago at Browning's request, and worked tirelessly to improve both the academic performance and campus culture.

Nearly everyone at the school praised Scilex for the dramatic turnaround, which has seen its ups and downs but overall has generated energy and pride where little existed.

She stressed that "it's not about the building," and that serving the community and children will not change. But at the same time, Scilex acknowledged, making any transition will require delicacy and a close attention to detail.

"There's a lot of history in this school," Scilex said. "It is important to this community. The community pours into us, and we pour back into the community. With this location it is very easy to do. … There's definitely going to be implications."