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Neighborhood Report

Old school holds new hope for area's kids

For decades the old V.M. Ybor Grammar School educated Cuban and Italian immigrants. Now it may serve Tampa's disadvantaged youths.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2003


The old school looks like a haunted house.

Warped plywood covers windows. Pigeons bolt like phantoms from holes in the roof.

A block away, teenagers run a drive-through for crack addicts.

Many see nothing but decay off E Columbus Avenue, but not Academy Prep.

The St. Petersburg private school sees fertile ground for a new campus and a keystone for neighborhood revitalization. It plans to heal the broken building -- for six decades the V.M. Ybor Grammar School -- and use it to inspire disadvantaged kids.

"This is a tough area. This is why we're here," said Lincoln Tamayo, a Tampa resident who will head the new school. "These are the people that have not been held to the standards that they deserve to be held to."

The 2-acre Ybor campus is the first offshoot of the academy, which has won a reputation for turning at-risk students into overachievers.

The school will spend $4.5-million to buy the land and building from the city of Tampa, restore the old structure and construct two new wings. The parties are expected to sign a $700,000 deal for the property today.

School supporters could save hundreds of thousands of dollars if they razed the building and started from scratch, Tamayo said.

But the symbolism is worth so much more.

Between 1908 and 1971, generations of Cuban and Italian immigrants studied inside the two-story, red-brick school house as they merged into the American mainstream. Tamayo envisions the same thing happening with the marginalized kids who live in the neighborhood now.

Beyond that, rescuing the old building will bring the area back to its former glory, he said.

City officials agree. They point to the proposed restoration of other nearby landmarks, including Cuscaden Park Swimming Pool and the former Centro Asturiano Hospital.

"This could be the benchmark for the rest of the area," said John Fernandez, real estate contract supervisor for the Barrio Latino Commission.

Neighbors can't wait, either.

A few years ago, they fought plans to tear down the grammar school and build subsidized housing in its place. Today, they like what they're hearing.

"Quite a few members of our association went to school there," said Carrol Marshall, president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association. "It's part of their heritage."

Eventually, the academy will have 120 students in grades five through eight. For the first year, however, the school will take 30 students -- 15 boys and 15 girls all in the fifth grade. Tuition is free for those who get accepted. That includes qualifying for the federal lunch program and passing a trial course.

Classes begin this summer.

In the meantime, there's a lot of work to be done.

A chain-link fence surrounds the scruffy lot. Atop the front steps, carpet padding and dirty blankets form a makeshift bed. An old math book props up one end like a pillow.

"It's a shame they let it go this far," said Carlos Menendez, who saw Tamayo in the school yard last week while on his way to La Segunda Bakery.

Menendez, 55, attended the school in the 1950s.

As he and Tamayo talked, a patrol car zipped east on 15th Avenue. Minutes later, another one shot west.

Some 44 percent of adults in a 1-mile radius did not graduate from high school, Tamayo said. But he isn't deterred. His last job: high school principal in inner-city Boston.

The academy buildings should be ready by summer, said Tamayo, who lived in Tampa for years before moving to New England. If not, portables will sprout on two lots the academy owns across the street.

But the academy clearly wants classes to begin in the old building as soon as possible. Beneath rotted roof beams, Tamayo sees hope.

"This has become like the Statue of Liberty," he said.

Ground breaking is set for Feb. 4 at 9 a.m. La Segunda will provide coffee and pastries.

-- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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