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Pinellas schools reopen with sights set beyond pandemic

From renovated schools and new laptops to free lunches and expanded pre-K, the district has more on its mind than masks.
Prekindergarten student Mattheo Sanchez, 3, attempts to escape the grasp of his father, Armando Sanchez, at Skycrest Elementary during first day of school Wednesday in Clearwater.
Prekindergarten student Mattheo Sanchez, 3, attempts to escape the grasp of his father, Armando Sanchez, at Skycrest Elementary during first day of school Wednesday in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 11, 2021|Updated Aug. 12, 2021

Jireh Katende could hardly believe her eyes as she entered St. Petersburg High School for the first day of her senior year.

The old cafeteria was gone, razed to make way for a new courtyard that’s nearly done. New buildings had been completed, along with major renovations to historic features such as the one-time library, now a classroom where she was taking history.

St. Petersburg High senior Jireh Katende
St. Petersburg High senior Jireh Katende [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“I was breath-taken when I saw it this morning,” Katende said. “I remember being here for freshman year. It was nothing like this.”

After a most unusual year, which began for many at a distance, Pinellas County students and educators were ready for a fresh start Wednesday as they returned to their campuses. Some still had concerns about health safety, given the recent surge of coronavirus cases among youth in Florida.

But they also wanted to look beyond who wore a mask to the real reason schools exist.

St Petersburg High students, Haily Mateo, left, and Yaeya Addison, both 16, arrive for the first day of the 2021-22 school year on Wednesday. The campus, built in 1926, has undergone major renovations.
St Petersburg High students, Haily Mateo, left, and Yaeya Addison, both 16, arrive for the first day of the 2021-22 school year on Wednesday. The campus, built in 1926, has undergone major renovations. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“What it is about for me is learning and making sure I get the education I need,” said Brooklyn Velez, an eighth-grader in Pinellas Park Middle School’s Cambridge Program.

The district pointed to several new initiatives, including:

• A push to get thousands of laptops into the hands of students in third through 10th grades, part of a larger effort to improve digital access.

• New all-day prekindergarten programs at 25 elementary schools, offered free of charge.

• Additional career and technical programs, such as optometric assisting and electronic systems integration at Pinellas Technical College, which also grew its dual enrollment participation.

The school system is also bolstering its mental health services with a support team to help children struggling with COVID-19 issues; opening free cafeteria lunches to all students; and continuing a variety of major construction projects at several sites including Seventy-Fourth Street Elementary, Tyrone Middle and Clearwater High.

Eric Krause, Clearwater’s new principal, greeted students outside the high school’s front gate on the first morning of classes.

Students gathered around him, looking to find their homeroom assignments. Many classes are in portables as renovations take place.

Krause acknowledged that students were anxious but excited about the new normal, with some COVID-19 restrictions lifted.

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“We still know that we have to follow all the protocols to keep the kiddos safe, but also do what’s best for them,” Krause said. “Get them in the classes and get their education going.”

Students congregate outside the main entrance before the first bell of the school year Wednesday at Clearwater High, where a major renovation is underway.
Students congregate outside the main entrance before the first bell of the school year Wednesday at Clearwater High, where a major renovation is underway. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Carrie Gregory, nervous about sending her kids back to school this year, walked her 16-year-old son, Gavin, to his portable. Gavin, who has asthma, hadn’t been to campus in a year.

His mom said she felt more comfortable sending him back because he’s vaccinated. Virtual school “wasn’t a choice this year,” she said, explaining that her kids learn better with hands-on work.

That sentiment was shared among many parents, students and teachers.

Online classes, whether self-directed or live, offered a helpful stopgap measure, they said. But it didn’t hold a candle to being in a classroom with classmates and teachers, several agreed.

Amaujee Crawford, Pinellas Park Middle
Amaujee Crawford, Pinellas Park Middle [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

“It’s a great learning environment having people around you and great moral support when you need it,” said Amaujee Crawford, a seventh-grader at Pinellas Park Middle who said he felt safer knowing he had a mask on.

Last year was better in that fewer kids were on campus, making classes more intimate, he said. But “it was also frustrating,” he added, because teachers had to split their time with online students. He said he was glad everyone was back.

Skycrest Elementary School parent Allison Tucson also found value in getting her third-grade son, Jaxson Bricker, into the classroom.

”I did my best with him when he was at home,” Tucson said. “But I’m a nurse, not a teacher.”

For some students, Wednesday marked their first day at their schools — even if they attended there last year.

Office clerk Penny Ryhal, center, fields questions from parents at Skycrest Elementary during first day of school Wednesday in Clearwater.
Office clerk Penny Ryhal, center, fields questions from parents at Skycrest Elementary during first day of school Wednesday in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Madison Bardock stood outside Skycrest holding a sign written in chalk reading: “First day of first grade.” Her mother, Jennifer Rupert, snapped a photo in front of the school sign, with plans to make the photo an annual tradition.

Last year, Madison stayed online as a kindergarten student. “We took her kindergarten photo last year at home with a laptop,” Rupert said.

That’s why school leaders said a critical component of this year will be recreating campus culture.

“Last year was dysfunctional and disconnected,” St. Petersburg High principal Darlene Lebo said. “We’re working to make sure kids are connected to the school.”

Senior Colin Zell said he saw the need. When schools went online in March 2020, he said, the student body seemed to divide itself into smaller groups, “and they haven’t really adjusted since.”

Pinellas Park Middle eighth grader Brooklyn Velez
Pinellas Park Middle eighth grader Brooklyn Velez [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Brooklyn Velez, the Pinellas Park eighth-grader, looked forward to getting back in the swing of things, too. She participated as a cheerleader in sixth grade, but last year most activities were canceled.

“COVID pushed everything back,” she said. ”This year, I want to do track.”

The first day of school wasn’t just for kids. Adult students also returned to their classes at Pinellas Technical College, with the same types of emotions as their younger peers.

“Taking a break was great. You get tired,” said Kathryn Burgess, 48, who’s in the school’s nursing program. “Now we’re back, excited about finishing up and getting it done.”

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