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Learning for a lifetime

Sherry Brown's Land of Learning Academy is a "big family'' that nurtures preschoolers for success.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- Amid walls painted the brightest yellow and carpeting that gives new meaning to the notion of primary colors, Sherry Brown still stands out. It's a shine she'd probably attribute to doing what she loves.

"We work with our heart and soul, but you have to when you work with kids," said Brown, who opened Land of Learning Academy 21 years ago. "Children have always been drawn to me, and I've always been drawn to them."

In two decades, Brown, 52, has seen enrollment grow from six children to more than 400. She also has seen the school grow from one small, bright yellow building on Sheldon Road to several bright yellow buildings on 2 1/2 acres at Sheldon and W Robson Road.

"Sheldon was a dirt road with hardly nothing around for miles," said Brown, whose previous job was as an assistant principal at a private school. There, she saw schoolchildren who had never been around other children, much less in a classroom.

"I knew if we could get to them before they got to school, we could make a better person," she said.

To that end, Brown's preschool takes in children as young as 2. The after-school component of her center offers homework assistance and tutoring, sports and prayer -- although she stresses that the school is not religious. "We're multicultural," she said. "We have seven nondenominational prayers."

Over the years, many of her students have returned to visit and sometimes work.

"I have eight teachers who used to attend here," she said. These include coaches James Huggins and Dante Bowry, who started attending at 2 and went to work at Land of Learning Academy after graduating from Sickles High School.

"It's like a big family," Huggins said.

The school also has seen Brown through low points in her life, including a tragedy 15 years ago.

Her daughter, Shannon Brown, was 16, co-captain of Gaither's cheerleading squad and junior class vice president when she died in a one-car accident on Casey Road about 2 miles from home. The cause of the crash was never determined, and the question haunts Brown.

"Somebody behind her said they thought a dog ran across, maybe she was reaching for a tape, we just don't know," Brown said.

The loss made her even more protective of children in her care.

"I go on every field trip," she said. Over the years, Brown has thought about adopting a child but, "I already have 400."

Brown and her husband were divorcing at the time of Shannon's death. She has since remarried, and she and husband Joe Barry live in Odessa.

She remembers the advice her daughter once gave her when she became obsessive about a work matter. "Oh, mom, move on," Shannon told her.

She has, but she has not forgotten. Behind her desk, in the tiny office where she first began her school, is a photo of Shannon, smiling and forever 16.

* * *

-- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com.

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