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A lone and sometimes lonely PTA volunteer pushes for improvement at Tampa's Potter Elementary School

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times  Anissa Snell, left, is the vice-president of Parent Teachers Association and along with the president Rosezine Pringle at Potter Elementary School PTA on Thursday, February 8, 2018. Snell is the lone parent volunteer in the Potter Elementary School PTA.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Anissa Snell, left, is the vice-president of Parent Teachers Association and along with the president Rosezine Pringle at Potter Elementary School PTA on Thursday, February 8, 2018. Snell is the lone parent volunteer in the Potter Elementary School PTA.
Published Feb. 16, 2018

TAMPA

She gave all of her children alarm clocks because they're never too young to be responsible.

Her moment of awakening came when her older son was failing third grade math. She wound up sitting in the classroom with him because tutors are expensive.

Today she is up to her elbows in Yankee Candle and cookie dough sales.

Of more than 200 schools in Hillsborough County, East Tampa's Potter Elementary gets the most attention for its struggles over the years with academics and behavior. The five-time F school has received a tsunami of attention from the district, churches and neighborhood association.

But, as Potter fights for its survival at a time of daunting edicts from the state, its secret weapon might be a 33-year-old call center employee named Anissa Snell.

• • •

Ask almost anybody: Great schools have strong PTAs. This is largely the result of material wealth. Such schools are crawling with volunteers. The wealthiest of them have booster clubs.

"If we're able to strengthen the partnership between the school and the parents, we will strengthen the partnership between the students and the teachers," says Eric Felder, Potter's assistant principal.

"You can't do it without parents. It's literally impossible."

Lower-income schools, and Potter fits squarely in that category, are lucky if they have a PTA at all.

At Potter, PTA is more of an idea than a thriving parent network.

Its president is Rosezine Pringle, the cafeteria manager who the kids call "Miss Sande."

But, while Pringle has a grandson in kindergarten, she's a member of the staff.

There's Pringle, there's Snell — the vice president — and often, that's it.

They schedule their meetings at 5 p.m., the time parents are due to pick their children up from the after-school program. They meet in the media center.

It was just the two of them on a recent Thursday, running through a roster of projects in lightning speed.

The considered spirit shirts. Could they be bought for $4 and sold for $8 to raise a few dollars? They scheduled events for Mother's Day and Father's Day. A teacher was planning a poetry night at the school. He wanted to know: Would the PTA provide juice and cake?

The proceeds from their Yankee Candle sale will pay for something special for teacher appreciation week, maybe a shrimp-and-grits breakfast. "They deserve it," Snell said. "We have to tell them they are appreciated."

But, Pringle pointed out, one of the teachers was vegan. Should they serve her a separate meal? What if there was more than one vegan?

Pringle's son kept ringing her phone. "I'm coming, give me 10 minutes," she told him.

Snell was also watching the time. Her children are involved in youth football. "I have to go to the field at 6 for registration," she said.

• • •

It was Maya, Snell's middle child and a fifth grader, who first insisted Snell get involved in the PTA.

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It didn't happen right away. De'Vonte, her youngest, was in a preschool that required parents to volunteer.

And there was work.

Snell reports every day to a T-mobile call center on Sligh Avenue. She's who you get when you hit zero to upgrade or ask a question about your service.

At a recent community gathering at Potter, she described her bosses as highly sympathetic to working parents.

"When they hired me, I said, 'before you give me this drug test, are you sure you want me?'" Snell told the group. "Because when my kids' school calls I'm leaving."

The point she was making was: Don't judge parents who cannot do the same.

"Not every job is going to accommodate every parent," she said. "If it was any other job besides T-mobile they would be like, "Ms. Snell, are you going to go to school? Or are you going to go to work to provide for your child?"

Still, she had to wait until De'Vonte was in kindergarten before she could take on the vice president's position.

She thought she could get more like-minded parents to step up. They smile, she said. They say they'll think about it.

"I had a parent tell me that she's not like me," Snell said. So she tried to explain to the parent "me in two minutes."

She didn't always have a husband. She started Hillsborough Community College, but never finished. She has experienced domestic violence.

"I have bills, just like you do," she said. "I have to say, okay, I can pay this and not pay that and I'll have to have an extension on this one."

When the parent still thought Snell was different, she took it as a compliment.

She is convinced that all parents care about their children's education, and hopes she can make more inroads in the summer.

She has nothing but praise for Potter, despite it's record. Although "learning starts at home," she said, her children have had great teachers.

Her oldest — Micah — was in the single gender class as a fifth grader. Now he is thriving at Franklin Boys Preparatory, the all-boy middle school in East Tampa.

Maya now is in Potter's all-girls class and has her application in to attend Ferrell Girls Preparatory next year.

While it's too early to know how the three will benefit from her PTA work, Snell said, "they're not going to follow down the wrong path. That right there is one of the things that I see since they know that just about every teacher here has my phone number."

Two years ago, Potter struggled to hold onto teachers who complained that the children's behavior was impossible to manage.

Principal Melanie Hill, in her second full year, reports a sharp drop in disciplinary problems as students respond to new routines.

Still, the school is one of seven that could be turned over to an outside operator if they do not improve to at least a C this year.

Both Snell and Felder said they are encouraged by the greater degree of interest by students and their parents.

"I can see the fruits of her labor, the growth," Felder said of Snell's efforts.

"It's not where we want it to be, but I do see the progress. It takes time. You build that trust and once you build that trust, the relationship will grow."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.