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  1. Education

St. Petersburg's Brighton Prep closing after 31 years

Josh Mott, 14, has become a voracious reader, says his father.
Published May 11, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG

Ask Faith Smith about her students and she'll tell you.

Stephen's youth football regional championship game was a thrill. Tess' melodic voice landed her a role in an opera ensemble. Caroline's art and tenure on the honor roll won her a spot in Dixie Hollins High's Graphic Arts Academy.

She doesn't name them by what brought them to Brighton Preparatory School: bullying by former classmates, plummeting grades due to lengthy hospital stays, a spectrum of learning disabilities.

"Every one of our kids has a story behind them," Smith said. All 20 of them.

After 31 years of preparing children to leave Brighton and go on to high school, graduate from college and start careers as paramedics, pilots and teachers, Smith will bid farewell to her students, dozens of alumni and the building that served as their safe haven on May 27.

Smith, Brighton's co-founder, co-director and the school's third- and fourth-grade teacher, will retire just one month before her 70th birthday. Finding no one suitable to continue Brighton's mission to help struggling students through the school's one-room schoolhouse environment, she plans to close the school.

"It was a very hard decision. It was my baby," Smith says with a sigh. "I wanted to leave while I was still able to do my job."

Smith, who hails from Scotland, taught alongside Brighton's co-director, Gayle Cooper, at Shepherd's Academy in the early 1980s. When that school closed in June of 1985, their husbands encouraged the pair to start a school of their own.

But Smith and Cooper wanted a school for an often forgotten demographic between gifted and severely disadvantaged students. They felt that a school with mixed grades, so children who were held back wouldn't feel uncomfortable, fair discipline and a low student-to-teacher ratio could cater to students who fall through the cracks of the traditional school system.

Inspired by Cooper's grandmother, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Texas, they found a small house that had been converted into an office five minutes away from Shepherd down Central Avenue. Brighton, a private, independent school, opened in August of 1985 with five students and three teachers.

"We worked day and night," Smith said. "There were no holidays that year."

Four years later the school moved into a new building next door. The school expanded to accept students in grades first through eighth and strived to keep a total enrollment below 30. One year, it peaked at 32.

In June 1996, that building was sold and Smith and Cooper found a second floor to rent out at Gateway Christian Center at 4355 Central Ave., the school's current location.

Not much has changed since that move. Jalousie windows allow light to flow into three traditional classrooms, which have either five or 10 wood and metal student desks recycled from the school's original location. Hooks for backpacks and lunch boxes line the windows outside of the classroom. Smith says lockers and switching classrooms are too distracting, noisy, and take up time.

"It's old-fashioned, the way school used to be," she said.

Brighton charges an annual tuition of $8,500 per student, but the school also accepts McKay scholarships for students with disabilities. When the recession hit a few years ago, Smith let payments slide for families stretched thin. She personally sponsors a few students herself.

It's unusually quiet at Brighton, where students are given individualized work to be kept on task. But every day they have breaks for recess and lunch and take art, computer and PE classes at the Jim and Heather Gills YMCA once a week. They often go on field trips to an ice skating rink or the Florida Botanical Gardens and take sailing lessons to prepare for an annual regatta at the end of the school year.

When 14-year-old Josh Mott, who was already on his way to high school, heard the school was closing, "I was sad because I won't be able to come back and visit," he said, remembering those field trips fondly.

His father, Michael Mott, said Josh has phonological dyslexia, which hinders his ability to read. After seven years at Brighton, Mott said his son is now a voracious reader who can't put down novels.

"There really isn't another school in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County quite like Brighton," said Mott, 52.

Heidi Casillas saw similar gains in her daughter, Caroline Tirebes, the student who will start at Dixie Hollins.

"She's overcome her learning disability and learned to deal with it. I can't say enough about this school," said Casillas, 50. "A lot of other kids won't get the same attention Caroline got."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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