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'A heart as big as he is'

The chief of a last-chance school wants to motivate children to succeed, as his family and teachers did him.

Published October 29, 2004

JACKSON HEIGHTS - Jim Gatlin Jr. grew up in segregated Tampa, learned in black schools and later taught in black schools. Now 65, Gatlin oversees Meacham Alternative, a last-chance school for mostly minority students with behavioral problems.

As a student, Gatlin remembers getting secondhand textbooks and having to sit in the back of a public bus. As an adult, he remembers the jubilation of watching white and black students learn side by side after desegregation.

Decades later, as thousands of black urban children leave suburban schools for the convenience of schools closer to home, Gatlin sees the pros and cons of maintaining diversity.

He wonders if the school district's choice plan can keep Hillsborough schools racially diverse and if officials should continue to try.

"People are bemoaning the fact that we are now resegregating," Gatlin said, but "I don't know that that's the worst thing in the world. I am convinced, when (schools) were all black, we had a much better school system."

One of six children, Gatlin grew up in North Boulevard Homes, west of downtown. Education was a key value - a ticket up and out.

"School was an almost sacred place," said Gatlin, who now lives in Jackson Heights.

Outside of school, Gatlin raked yards along Bayshore Boulevard and in Palma Ceia with his grandfather, who had no formal education but taught his grandchildren that "education was a salvation from common labor."

At Middleton High, a teacher named J.B. Green helped him win a grant to Florida A&M University that covered room and board in exchange for milking cows for the school. Initially, he hadn't planned to go to college. He had his sights on the Air Force and his mind on the girls.

But his teacher insisted.

For many adults in his community, investing in children's success was a way to achieve civil rights and impart a lasting value on young people.

"Were it ever necessary to help someone, we automatically lent a helping hand," said Gatlin's younger brother, Robert, who also became an educator.

Growing up, Gatlin experienced his share of injustices.

One day in high school, he and his buddies had gotten in some trouble and had to stay after to wash chalkboards. During the ride home on the public bus, the driver stopped to let someone off at 15th Street and Columbus Drive, and the boys piled into the empty seat.

"It wasn't quite the front, but it was beyond that line that never was there, but it was always there," Gatlin said. "You knew when you were crossing that line."

The driver saw and refused to move, raising his hand angrily and snapping his fingers at the boys. "We're not dogs," the boys grumbled as they moved toward the back of the bus.

Years later, when desegregation came, they celebrated.

"It opened up vistas, and we could see how big the world really was," said Gatlin, then a teacher at Young Junior High.

At the same time, desegregation shredded community bonds. Students left their neighborhoods to attend school, often preventing them from getting involved in sports and other school activities. Teachers who shared cultural values with students suddenly struggled to relate to a diverse population.

Gatlin experienced it firsthand during his 40 years as a teacher, coach, dean, principal and area director. This year, Gatlin came back after a year of retirement to be site administrator at Meacham, which serves fourth- through 12th-graders.

He wants to instill in them the value of education.

"He's a real giver," said Earl Sykes, a retired Plant City principal and longtime fishing buddy of Gatlin's. "He's got a heart as big as he is. He'll do anything to help kids."

Gatlin thinks Meacham students need an individualized approach that starts with the basics. He wants students who haven't experienced success to taste it.

"Nothing beats success like success," Gatlin said. "I would like a lot of people to experience what I did."

He admits it's a tougher job than he expected. At Meacham, problems plague computers and lunches made at Blake High often get cold before reaching students. Each morning, students have to go through metal detectors to get past the front door.

But he's not giving up.

"I want this to be an oasis in the midst of this desert."

- Staff writer Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 226-3321 or

James Gatlin Jr.

AGE: 65

FAMILY: Wife Evelyn; three sons James III, Marcus and Brent

HOME: Jackson Heights

WORSHIPS: First Baptist Church of College Hill, where he is chairman of the board of trustees

SCHOOLING: Bachelor's from Florida A&M University; master's in education from Tuskegee Institute; administration certificate from University of South Florida

TEACHER AT: Bethune School in Wimauma, 1963-1966; Young Junior High, 1966-1971; Middleton Junior High, 1971-1972

DEAN AT: Buchanan Junior High, 1972-1978

PRINCIPAL AT: Buchanan Junior High, 1978-1993; Chamberlain High School, 1984-1994

GENERAL DIRECTOR: District official in charge of technical and career education from 1994-1997; district official in charge of Area II from 1997-2003

CURRENT JOB: Site administrator at Meacham Alternative

SIDE GIGS: Barbecue catering; lawn service.

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