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Gulfside Elementary offers health care, clothes, dinners — and hope for other Pasco schools

‘It really helps out the people that don’t have the money,’ fifth-grader Tony Ortega says. ‘It’s a pretty cool thing for the school to do.'

HOLIDAY — Margot Zukowski worked her way through the classroom-sized clothes closet and food pantry, offering color coordination tips to her fifth-grade daughter, Mackenzie.

In her own plastic bags: socks, underwear and some canned food, “just in case.”

Dozens of neighbors also scanned the items available for free in Gulfside Elementary’s community “Hub” before heading to the cafeteria for the weekly dinner offered by Metropolitan Ministries and a “Getting Ahead” class from One Community Now.

“They have helped me in so many ways,” Zukowski said of Gulfside’s five-year-old community school initiative, which recently expanded into a newly renovated classroom wing, ticking off a list that included after-school enrichment classes like yoga and preventive dental care.

“Things most parents have to go out and pay for are here for free,” she said. “And they don’t look down on you for asking for help.”

When it comes to educating children in poverty, many experts say meeting children’s basic needs must come first. They can’t learn as well if they’re hungry, sick or even embarrassed by their clothing.

The idea of bringing resources and organizations together under one roof, to provide free or reduced-cost social services, has gained popularity as a way to tackle the issues that might hinder learning. Gulfside became Pasco’s first such project five years ago.

With its successes mounting — Gulfside’s program expects certification from its University of Central Florida sponsor within a month — the district now has its eye on creating a similar initiative for Northwest Elementary, which sits on the same campus as Hudson Middle and Hudson High schools.

Related: Pasco seeks community school to serve children beyond classrooms

“One of the things we miss the boat on when we’re trying to figure out how to deal effectively with low-income communities is, how do you get them more involved in the schools,” deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said in December, when introducing plans to overhaul west-side schools. “Our goal is to create an environment on campus where parents come” to get their children, but also to receive services and find help as they need it.

That’s been the goal for Gulfside, which has drawn the support and participation of local churches, the YMCA, Youth and Family Alternatives, the county health department and health care providers. Walmart donates to the school twice a week.

Mary Brown, school project director of Community Partnership School at Gulfside Elementary in Holiday
Mary Brown, school project director of Community Partnership School at Gulfside Elementary in Holiday [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

“We have people who live in this community who don’t even have any children. They will come in here multiple hours a week” to volunteer, said center director Mary Brown.

The school also won a $250,000 state grant to help grow the initiative, which now boasts full-time staff for parent engagement, wellness coordination, enrichment classes and donation organizing.

Having those positions filled is a “really big piece,” Brown said, because it allows teachers “to just be able to teach.”

If they need classroom supplies, the center has them. If they see a student who requires medical attention, the center can provide services without having to seek out an agency to assist.

Teacher Katie Johnson, who has taught at Gulfside for eight years, recalled one student who had a dental infection identified through the school’s weekly hygienist visits. He got the required care and missed only four days of school, rather than the month he could have lost had his condition worsened. The school even delivered his prescription to his home.

“It makes a world of difference,” Johnson said.

Even offering free before- and after-school activities helps teachers, Brown said, because it cuts down on absenteeism as parents have someplace to care for their children.

Families gather for a Family Night community dinner held each Wednesday at Gulfside Elementary School in Holiday.
Families gather for a Family Night community dinner held each Wednesday at Gulfside Elementary School in Holiday. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

LaTanesia Cason regularly sends her four children to those enrichment offerings. She finds them among the most beneficial extras at the school, because she knows her youngsters are safe and having fun while she works.

Cason said she also takes advantage of the weekly dinners and courses for parents, as well as the school supplies and the occasional clothes offering. Her twin 6-year-olds picked out dresses for their Valentine’s Day dance there. She added that she gives back when she can, too.

“I’m a single mom of four,” she said. “It’s not a cheap thing.”

Jennifer Betterly, who has four sons under 12, said that by offering services such as physical exams, her children can participate in school activities such as sports.

“Every place charges $25 per kid for physicals. We don’t have that extra money,” Betterly said. “They provided that for free.”

Having everything in one location also helps for convenience, she added. In this part of Pasco County, it can be tough to get access to the health department and other support agencies, which don’t have offices nearby but come to the school weekly.

That’s a critical aspect of the void that the community school fills, principal Clara Craig said. She noted that the area west of U.S. 19 doesn’t have a grocery store or public transit, either.

Clara Craig, principal of Gulfside Elementary in Holiday
Clara Craig, principal of Gulfside Elementary in Holiday [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

“We’re trying to get a county bus stop out here,” Craig said. “We’ve had families walking 2 miles (to Gulfside) to get what they need, then walking back with a wagon. Or we take them back.”

She and Brown said they hope their work to establish a program at Gulfside will help Hudson-area officials get the concept up and running more quickly. They had no doubt that, done properly, it will improve the community and the school’s ability to bring children up to grade level and beyond.

Gulfside has seen its state grade steadily improve, from F before adopting the model to C in the three most recent years. That’s still not good enough, Craig suggested, but definitely on the right track.

“The kids can be focused, engaged. That’s the biggest thing,” Craig said. “They feel like there’s hope.”

That’s huge for a community that often feels overlooked and under-served.

“It’s a pretty cool thing for the school to do,” said fifth-grader Tony Ortega, Betterly’s oldest son, as he filled a new backpack with pants, a shirt, a blanket and a cup. “I think everyone deserves a chance to get stuff like this.”

Cason said she couldn’t agree more, as she attempted to convince her twins to eat a veal patty — not so easy after they learned it was “baby cow.”

“It takes a village to raise a child,” she said, quoting the well-known verse. “This whole program together is part of that village.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at