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Downtown school will stay true to its roots

Offering convenience for parents who work nearby, Downtown Partnership will move, but not far, and expand.

By RICK GERSHMAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2002


TAMPA -- This downtown stretch of Polk Street is known as the "wind tunnel." On warm days, it creates a cooling breeze. But on a chilly Tuesday morning, it numbs knuckles.

The three grimacing adults unloading children from a conga line of cars are neither doormen nor valets.

Welcome to curbside service at Downtown Partnership elementary school.

"Try doing this anywhere else downtown," Principal Craig Burkhard said.

In the near future, he may have to.

Currently leasing quarters from First Presbyterian Church, in fall 2004 this unique school expects to be in a different and larger building, on a different and larger property.

It likely will have a different -- and, yes, larger -- mission, reaching all the way to eighth grade.

More important is the constant: The school will remain downtown.

Its parents and pupils, of course, come from all parts -- from Palma Ceia, Hyde Park, New Tampa, Temple Terrace, Carrollwood, Brandon and Lakeland, for starters.

They come for a convenience immediately apparent when the school opened in 1998: Work downtown, and your elementary-age child is eligible. A fee-based afterschool program keeps Junior safe until Mom or Dad arrive.

But other uncommon features are credited with filling the school (called a choice school because parents choose to apply) to capacity. They include:

Smaller student body and smaller class sizes.

Conversational Spanish for all students, including kindergarten.

Walking-distance field trips to libraries, museums and arts centers.

Parents' option to lunch with child at school or off-campus.

Elective violin lessons.

"It's like a private school without being private," said parent Teresa Evans, who lives in Carrollwood but works as a paralegal on Bayshore Boulevard near downtown Tampa.

Her daughter Anna, 5, attends, and Anna's older sister Emily is an alum.

"It's the best of all possible worlds," said Kathleen Matthews, who lives in Town 'N Country with her partner, Kathy Laterza, and their daughter, fourth-grader Morgan Laterza.

"She's in a small classroom, she sees her principal every single day, and there's a relationship that you can build with her teachers there."

Matthews, a software trainer for the University of South Florida, works five blocks north in the Park Trammell Building on Tampa Street, where USF has an office.

She and Laterza originally enrolled Morgan in a neighborhood school, but it wasn't a good fit: "She needed more attention, a smaller class size. . . . Here, she loves it; she's very proud of it."

While school officials say Downtown Partnership School likely will add grades 6-8 when it moves, future sixth-graders such as Morgan will have to enroll elsewhere for a year. In fall 2004, they could rejoin the new and expanded downtown school as seventh-graders.

Maureen McRae faces the same issue. Her son Adom, a fourth-grader, has attended the school since it opened. McRae, a Town 'N Country resident, said she considers the school "a blessing" and said a middle-school expansion would be "awesome."

Meanwhile, she probably will enroll Adom for sixth grade at Manhattan/Westshore Alliance, a sister choice school. Then it's back downtown.

Though the school covers three floors -- Burkhard enjoys the use of a small elevator to traverse them -- quarters remain tight. Some teachers use support beams and clotheslines as extra space to display pupils' work. One room does triple duty as gymnasium, cafeteria and performance hall.

Here and there are reminders that the landlord is a church.

In the music room, pews serve as seats. Another pew waits in the lobby. The windows of one first-grade classroom are stained glass.

When the school moves, one of the parents' favorite features, small class size, likely will be left behind. Classes are small now because the church building can accommodate only 155 students.

The new school will be built for at least 600 students, said Myrna Robinson, general director of Area 1 schools, and the typical teacher-pupil ratio would be applied.

Downtown Partnership officials recruited Ted DeLaVergne Jr., a commercial real estate broker and consultant, to hunt for the school's new home. DeLaVergne said he had located 10 sites he plans to present as possibilities for the new choice school.

"I've got 'em all around downtown," DeLaVergne said. "I'm going to give them a nice choice."

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