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In Palm Harbor, an old school gets a new name with meaning: Elisa Nelson Elementary

The school once known as Palm Harbor Elementary and, before that, Palm Harbor Middle, now will be called Elisa Nelson Elementary, the Pinellas County School Board decided Tuesday. Elisa, inset, was murdered near the campus in November 1980. The campus, closed since 2009, will reopen in August as a magnet school. Numerous officials, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, pushed for the new name. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times / Nelson family]
Published Mar. 26

When Pinellas County officials announced in 1981 that the original Palm Harbor Middle School would close, less than a year had passed since 10-year-old Elisa Nelson was murdered near the campus.

The school soon would reopen at another site less than a mile away — in an orange grove where the girl's body was found — so community members urged officials to name it after her. But even with support, that effort lost traction as the district shuffled to get the school up and running.

Nearly four decades later, Pinellas is set to reopen the old middle school, where Elisa had been a fifth-grader. It will again welcome students in August as an elementary magnet school, with programs focused on gifted studies and literacy. And after a unanimous vote by the School Board on Tuesday, it will be called Elisa Nelson Elementary.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Decades later, slain Palm Harbor girl gets a memorial

School Board chambers, filled with family, friends and former classmates of Elisa's, erupted in cheers following the decision. Men and women sprang from their seats, hands raised above their heads in celebration.

"It's humbling to see so many people in the community … still holding Elisa in their hearts," the girl's brother, Jeff Nelson, said in an interview after the vote. A stream of people poured out of the meeting room to hug and congratulate him.

"You did it!" one woman exclaimed.

School Board member Lisa Cane, who was raised in Palm Harbor and still lives there, said Elisa's lasting impact in the community is clear.

"Heroes are not always measured by what they do in their lifetime, but by the legacy they leave behind," she said. "Today we have seen the legacy of … what one person can do in a community."

The school district used an online survey to collect nominations for the new school's name. Of the 634 responses, more than 330 supported naming it after Elisa. The second-favorite suggestion — Palm Harbor Elementary — drew less than 80 votes.

ALSO READ: Larry Mann executed for Palm Harbor girl's 1980 killing

Among those who participated in the survey were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a handful of other officials representing the Tampa Bay area. They included state Rep. Chris Sprowls, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, state Sen. Ed Hooper, Pinellas commissioners Dave Eggers and Karen Seel, Pinellas sheriff Bob Gualtieri, state attorney Bernie McCabe and public defender Bob Dillinger.

"In her life, she was loving, kind and adventurous," a letter signed by multiple officials said of Elisa. "In her death, she galvanized a fight for justice and has inspired tremendous generosity."

Elisa's legacy "has had a lasting and profound effect on Palm Harbor," Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor resident, wrote in a letter. Naming the school after the girl is a "due and appropriate honor," he added.

Bush pointed out in a letter that, although Elisa is not a typical civic leader, her death inspired an amendment to the Florida Constitution that better protects the rights of victims like her.

Rev. Timothy Nehls, who officiated Elisa's funeral, wrote to the school district, too, saying he has yet to attend a larger service than hers in Palm Harbor. Community groups supported naming a school after Elisa then, he told the School Board on Tuesday, and they are even more supportive now.

"Her tragedy brought his newly formed community in the early '80s together," Nehls said.

Many at the meeting noted the work of Elisa's family and friends to found a nonprofit, Elisa's Greatest Wishes, in her honor. In five years since it started in partnership with the Pinellas County Education Foundation, nearly $600,000 in charity for kids has been raised, Jeff Nelson said.

Elisa and her family "have been a true inspiration for the community," Sprowls said in an interview after the vote, adding that the school, "where children are going to go and learn and thrive, is a real testament of the legacy of the Nelson family."

Tuesday's decision comes on top of a previous effort by the district to memorialize Elisa. Officials in 2014 dedicated a mural and reading corner in the new Palm Harbor Middle School library called "Elisa's Reading Nook." The painting depicts some of the girl's favorite things, like horses and books, and a quote she wrote in her journal: "These would be my greatest wishes."

Looking back, Jeff Nelson said he's glad the original request that the school district use his sister's name for the school built in the orange grove didn't work out. "That school is where she died," he said.

The one reopening now, he said, is a much better fit.

"This school is where she lived."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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