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'A new, fresh start': Struggling Hudson Elementary starts the year with plans for a turnaround

Resource management associate Ellen Jones, left, helps Mariah Feagley, 6, to her first-grade classroom on Monday, during Pasco County’s first day of school at Hudson Elementary School. The school must improve student performance or could face a state-imposed restructuring. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Aug. 13

HUDSON — Fifth-grader Shelby Barnett couldn't wait to get back to classes after a summer away from Hudson Elementary School.

"This school is really fun," the 10-year-old safety patrol officer said, as she walked the halls with two close friends.

Even before the first bell rang Monday, Shelby couldn't help but notice many changes on campus — and not just the fresh coat of paint brightening the corridors.

"We now have a new principal, which presents new life," she said. "There are new kids and new teachers."

Nearly half the faculty turned over from a year ago, including some favorites. Yet Shelby had nothing but enthusiasm for whatever the future might bring.

"It makes new beginnings," she said.

After a year that included the threat of being closed down by the district, followed by a D grade from the state, that fresh start is what everyone at the school was hoping for.

People had a healthy dose of respect for the hard work that went into the previous three school years to raise Hudson's accountability rating after two consecutive F's. Campus morale and community support improved, too, after years of dampened spirit.

But they also recognized the need to do more.

The D grade put Hudson back on the state accountability watch list, giving it two years to improve or face a major overhaul that might include the shutdown no one wanted. Chatter last year of closing Hudson and shifting its resources hurt in ways that might have made this year's changes necessary.

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

"It seemed like some teachers had given up last year, with the rumors they were going to shut it down," said parent Crystal Fahlsing, whose daughter Alana is in third grade. "It felt like they abandoned us."

Many of them left the school after former principal Dawn Scilex transferred to Gulf Trace Elementary.

Fahlsing called the latest revamp "amazing," and expressed confidence that new principal Adrian Anthony and his staff can push Hudson toward success.

"I think he can motivate the kids and, if he can get them motivated, yeah," she said.

Anthony, previously an assistant principal at Sunlake High School, said an effective, sustainable turnaround can take three to five years. He has less time than that.

But by building on the past staff's efforts, and implementing strategies that have worked in other similar schools, Hudson can make it, he said.

Among his many initiatives, Anthony created a different leadership structure that places a key leader at every grade level to foster growth and teamwork. He allowed teachers in first through fifth grades to specialize in subject areas, rather than teach all academic topics.

He hired extra special education teachers, a science specialist and a behavioral specialist. He added a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM lab and an American Sign Language academy. He even changed the school logo and motto to "Strong and Noble."

During a planning session the Friday before classes resumed, Anthony rallied his staff with stories of parents wanting to return to Hudson and businesses offering their assistance.

The work ahead is more than a job, he said, adding that the most important factor in helping children out of poverty is a teacher who believes in them.

"You are here not just for yourselves. You are here to save somebody," Anthony said. "If you are here to save lives, you are in the right place at the right time."

Fifth-grade teacher Michelle Brandon, entering her fourth year at Hudson, acknowledged that the message and infectious enthusiasm are similar to when Scilex took over after that F in 2016.

RELATED: After years of spiraling downward, will Hudson Elementary finally find success?

The faculty and staff were mostly new then, too. And Scilex came in with a mission to turn things around, promising state officials that a C was within reach. And it was, for a time.

Everyone worked extra hours, focusing their efforts on student academics and social-emotional needs, she said. Many of the initiatives, such as student uniforms and weekly dinners to help parents help their kids, still remain.

Even Hudson's latest D grade, which pushed it back into the state accountability orbit, was not too far off a C. Still, by the end of that third year, some of the positivity had dipped, with Scilex spending a lot of time off-campus tending to an illness.

"I have seen what the school has gone through," Brandon said, as her students completed a back-to-school survey. "But I'm really excited about the new changes."

Yes, the school faces the state challenge to do better.

"I think we're in a good position to do what we need to do, to make it a non-issue," she said.

Kindergarten team leader Maria Hawkins, new to the school and the Pasco County district, shared in the optimism. Before teaching, she came from a mental health counseling background and appreciated the school's approach to treating every student individually to move them forward.

She had lots of praise for Anthony's efforts to pull the staff and school together.

"He brings so much energy and charisma to this school," she said. "I don't know anything about before, but I am really liking where he wants to take the school."

RELATED: Pasco County Schools' first black male principal appointed in decades sees community as key to academic success

Fifth-grader Lily Caulfield, standing outside the school Monday waiting for the doors to open, looked forward to seeing friends and learning new things. She also was happy with some of the new ideas, especially getting to have more than one teacher during each day.

Unfazed by the shifting staff, Lily said, "it's a good thing, because we have a new, fresh start."

Her mom, Michelle Fortin, said she also appreciated the latest efforts to prepare her daughter and classmates for middle school and beyond.

"I think they do need some changes to amp up the school a little bit," Fortin said. "I love this school. She has had wonderful teachers every year. The changes they made will help."

The first day of classes signaled to many that everything was off to the right start.

First-grade teacher Jeff Caraway had his students giggling from the get-go as he talked about expectations, right down to the need to use better adjectives than "good."

"We're going to get ready for an excellent day," Caraway told the class. "Doesn't that sound better?"

Down the hallway, fourth-grade teacher Judy Hudak engaged her students in a conversation about what they like about school and what they would change. More than one said they noticed the change in principals, but that was okay.

Hudak, in her second year at Hudson, said she never considered leaving, as many others did.

"It's extremely exciting," she said, "getting to meet the children and figure out what they need help in, and then to meet their goals."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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