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  1. Education

Still strong after 125 years, Gorrie credits teachers, parents

TAMPA

At John B. Gorrie Elementary School, the school's basement doubled as a Cold War-era fallout shelter. During fire drills, kids scrambled down rickety metal fire escapes.

Students walked more often than rode to school, and they sweated out pre- and post-summer months in classrooms without air-conditioning.

Bonnie Jordan chuckles at the memories of her student days in the 1950s.

"We were young. We were used to it," she said.

Now a teacher at the K-5 school, Jordan has witnessed a tidal wave of change at Gorrie, which celebrates its 125th anniversary today.

In an area where 50-year-old buildings are often considered historic, Gorrie is the real deal. It calls itself the oldest continuously operated public elementary school in Florida.

There is little doubt it is one of the best.

In recent years, it has won the Golden School Award, the Five Star School Award for community involvement and the Florida School Recognition Award for sustained and improved academic performance. It is one of only two public schools in Hillsborough County where kindergartners and first-graders are required to learn violin.

The school is so good that Realtors say it helps sell homes in South Tampa and south downtown, where it serves parents in trendy Hyde Park, Davis Islands and Harbour Island.

DeDe Ross, of the Premiere Home Team, Keller Williams Realty South Tampa, said houses within Gorrie's neighborhoods command higher prices, even compared with those just outside the boundaries.

"I've lived in Hyde Park since 2002 and it's very well talked about among people who live in South Tampa. People care very much about their schools and living in a Gorrie area," Ross said. "It definitely helps. The Gorrie homes bring more value in Hyde Park."

Though parents and teachers say Gorrie's main appeal is its consistent high marks, another attraction is the way the school keeps one foot planted in the past.

The six-building campus at W De Leon Street and S Boulevard has a historic feel, with aging brick and a columned entrance. And it has educated several generations of the same family.

"We have a lot of third-generation families here," Jordan said. "My father went here."

The building was originally called the Hyde Park Grammar School.

The two-room wooden school opened in 1889 at Platt Street and W Seventh (now Magnolia) Avenue in the fledgling Hyde Park subdivision, named for the well-known Chicago neighborhood.

Acres of orange groves and pine trees surrounded it. A new two-story brick building opened on De Leon Street in 1903 after a trolley line pushed into Hyde Park to carry families into downtown. The move opened the area to more home builders, leading to higher enrollments.

In 1915, the school's name was changed to honor John B. Gorrie, inventor of an ice machine that became a forerunner to refrigeration and air-conditioning.

The school expanded over the years to six buildings. In 2005, an indoor gymnasium called the Coliseum opened.

"It's been at capacity since the day it was built because it's so sought after," said principal Marjorie Sandler, who credits the school's success to its close parent-teacher relationship, which includes parents assisting in classrooms.

That relationship goes back generations.

In 1914, a group of mothers hired a cook to make hot lunches for students. Because this preceded school cafeterias, the kids ate outside under oak trees and a pavilion.

A few years ago, when a funding gap threatened to scuttle the beloved strings program, parents stepped up with donations to rescue it, contributing to the instructor's salary and benefits.

And when the city's Architectural Review Commission forbade a covered playground in Hyde Park, parents raised money to build the 9,864-square-foot Coliseum, one of only two indoor gyms at an elementary school in Hillsborough County.

"You have families who are invested in their children, who take advantage of all the school has to offer by being involved," lawyer and PTA member Janice Rickert said. "It's been that way for years."

Rickert, also a former PTA president and treasurer, helped organize the anniversary event.

Parents also help in the classroom with special projects, fundraising and after-school celebrations such as the annual fall festival before Halloween. All of these end up promoting the school and unifying parents and teachers.

The anniversary event, which starts this morning, is open to students, alumni, former teachers and administrators. After a presentation in the Coliseum, fifth-graders will give tours of the school to small groups.

Contact Rich Shopes at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @richshopes.

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