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  1. The Education Gradebook

At Hudson Elementary, a neighborhood tour sets the tone for a new school year

HUDSON — Marissa Montano peered out the window as the school bus bounced through the narrow roads behind Hudson Elementary.

"This place is a nice contrast," the fifth-grade teacher observed. "You've got the Sea-Doos over there, and look at this across the street. It's condemned. And then you wonder if someone is living in there. I'm sure there might be."

A couple of blocks farther along, a few children played in front of their small homes. The bus rolled to a stop so the teachers, who were crammed in three to a seat, could hand out school supplies.

Within moments, more parents and kids came out to take advantage of the free offer. In this community, the need is great.

That's what principal Tracy Graziaplene wanted her faculty to see when she scheduled a tour of the Pasco County school's attendance zone for the first day back to work.

It's too easy to drive to school every day, go into the classroom for work, and leave without ever seeing the area you serve, said Graziaplene, who has led Hudson since June 2013.

"We need to be more engaged in our community in order for the community to be more engaged in school," she said.

It's a critical piece for Hudson Elementary, which has struggled academically for years. The school was one of the first in Pasco to face "restructuring" efforts, back in 2008, for its repeated failure to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards.

Since then, it has served an increasingly more impoverished group of children, with the percentage of those receiving free or reduced price meals rising from an already high 67 percent to the current 84 percent.

Its student performance on state tests, meanwhile, has remained fairly flat, with the school earning Ds in the two most recent years available. With about half the staff turning over in the past two years, Graziaplene considered it key to give her teachers — many of whom live outside the neighborhood — a firsthand view.

"We've got to know where these kids live," said second-grade teacher Virgie Gagne, in her fifth year with Hudson. "We've never done this before. It's a good thing."

As the bus made its way north on U.S. 19, longtime teacher and area resident Joan Manuel ticked off what she saw: A homeless shelter where some students live. A hotel where others reside.

Across the aisle, brand-new fourth-grade teacher Sandra Rivera took notes.

"One thing that stood out to me is some of the houses have sheets covering their windows, and cracks in the windows," Rivera said. "If they were middle class, they would be able to fix those."

The turn into a waterside community with large houses stood in stark contrast to the single-wide homes with 1990s-era cars out front. But even then, the teachers noted the plethora of signs that said foreclosure, for sale and for rent — evidence that the once-stable neighborhood had suffered through the recession.

By the time they arrived at the final mobile home park of their tour, the teachers were far from dismayed, though. They were excited to have seen some kids, and encouraged about the year.

"I better understand when my students are struggling where they had to come from to get here," said special education teacher Christine Crowley, who recently moved to Pasco from New Jersey. "It makes me love them more."

Getting off the bus, the faculty chattered about how they could make their 2016 tour even better. They couldn't wait to get into their classrooms to call families and welcome them to the new school year.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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