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Top of the class

And they're off

It's the moment most kids wait for and many adults brace for: the end of the school day. Herds of youngsters, more than 50,000, are guided to buses, vans, cars, bikes, sidewalks. No child must be, um, left behind. That bell rings ...

By Times Staff Writer
Published May 1, 2005

Photo gallery: Blanton students head for their buses.

Graphic: Blanton's dismissal time battleplan.

From southernmost St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, the hours between 1:30 and 3:30 can be tense at Pinellas schools, especially elementary schools.

That's the time when more than 50,000 children under 12 are set free from the confines of classrooms and the watchful eye of teachers.

On Thursday, Neighborhood Times staff writers Donna Winchester, Anne Lindberg and Jon Wilson walk quietly, their right arms bent, fingertips touching eyebrows in soldierly salutes.

2:21 p.m. - Fifth-graders in Evelyn Foster's class, wearing the school uniform of white polo shirts tucked into navy bottoms, are clearing their desks in preparation for dismissal. They pick minute bits of paper off the floor and toss them into trash cans. They pack their backpacks, book bags and wheeled carriers and wait for "silent dismissal" to begin.

2:25 p.m. - The voice of principal Debi Turner comes over the intercom, asking that children who have "pink notes" come to the office. A pink note is given to children who have behaved well. When the kids present them at the office, they receive a small gift, usually a snack. "Please do not run," she reminds them.

2:27 p.m. - A girl with long blond hair sits reading at her desk in Foster's classroom. "Amanda, are you all packed up?" Foster asks. "Yes, ma'am," the child answers. Satisfied, Foster turns to another child: "Andrew, would you pick that up, please?" When he does, Foster says, "Thank you."

2:28 p.m. - Amanda gets up and turns on the television, a daily ritual in Blanton classrooms as the clock moves toward 2:30. In the front office, Turner is preparing to broadcast the progression of bus arrivals so children will know when to leave their classrooms. Amanda returns to her seat and continues reading. A boy clutches his backpack in his lap and chews on it absent-mindedly.

2:30 p.m. - Crossing guard Joan Barrucci arrives and stations herself at the crosswalk in front of the school. Moments later, she blows her whistle, steps into 54th Avenue N and holds up a red stop sign so Lori Odell can cross to the school to pick up her daughter, Kori, who is 7.

2:35 p.m. - Ten minutes before dismissal, 14 vehicles are bumper to bumper in the car line. LaVerne Estell, the principal's secretary, takes her place outside the front office to the left of the pickup area to make sure no children take a shortcut to their parents' cars.

2:38 p.m. - Turner, the principal, praises the children over the intercomfor doing well on the writing portion of the FCAT. She reminds them that the school chorus will perform tonight. She bids them goodbye for the day. "Go home and don't watch TV. Read a book and do something special for your family," she says. Meanwhile, Georgia Painter, the intermediate reading coach, takes her position in the car circle.

2:40 p.m. - Assistant principal Dave Carey takes his place in the car line, waving and greeting parents. The school secretary calls him on his walkie-talkie. A mom who has come to pick up her child has stopped in the office to find out if she can take the family dog back to her daughter's classroom. "How big is the doggie?" Carey asks. "Can mom walk with the doggie in her arms?" Darrell Brazzell drives past Carey on a Harley-Davidson Low-Rider. He parks it and heads toward the campus.

2:43 p.m. - Back in Foster's classroom, children stack their chairs in the corner. Those who are bus patrols leave for their duty stations. Outside, music teacher John Shockey speaks into a walkie-talkie as kids flow by him. The littlest children walk in groups of four toward the bus line. The sound of their feet and chatter infiltrates the quiet classroom.

2:45 p.m. - The dismissal signal - a long electronic "ping" - sounds.

2:46 p.m. - A small blond boy walking with his mother passes the media center. They are engaged in a conversation. "Mom, I still remember when you had a scorpion and . . ." The denouement unfortunately remains a mystery; the two walk rapidly, and their chat fades into the afternoon.

2:50 p.m. - The first of about 25 bicycle riders, helmet strapped on, trots with his bicycle. "Walk, please," a staff member admonishes. In a few minutes, a stream of riders begins to pass, boys and girls walking their bikes: a Mongoose, several Huffys and Roadmasters, a Howler, a Magna, a Wipeout. The kids wear backpacks and helmets. From half a dozen mouths poke the skinny white stems of Tootsie-Pops. The riders are headed toward the sidewalk on 54th Avenue N, where they will mount their machines and pedal east or west. Interspersed are dozens of walkers. They don't hurry, they don't loiter. Using many techniques, they lug the omnipresent backpack. Some are strapped high and tight on backs; others dangle low, straps loose, bouncing off bottoms. And some are pulled along on wheels.

2:51 p.m. - On the other side of the campus, Foster takes her students who ride the bus to the hall outside, where they sit while one pupil stands in the doorway of the classroom and announces which bus - pink, blue, orange - is ready for passengers. The children who ride on those buses are allowed to walk to the bus area.

2:52 p.m. - The car line is full from entrance to exit, but because dismissal has begun, cars have begun inching their way back out onto 54th Avenue. Marcio Chang rounds the curve toward the pickup point and begins looking for his 6-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Darrell Brazzell, the Harley rider, returns to the motorcycle, his 6-year-old daughter, April, in tow. He gently pulls April's long dark hair into a ponytail and places a tight-fitting black liner on her head. Next, a helmet goes on. April mounts the Harley unassisted and pops into place behind her dad, her ponytail bobbing under her helmet as the two motor out of the parking lot. Brazzell, a single parent, picks up April every day. Meanwhile, back in the bus line, buses and vans from aftercare programs like Girls Inc. and the Boys and Girls Club are waiting. The district's buses have colorful plastic hangers with cardboard placards hanging from their mirrors. Children look at the color of the cardboard to make sure they're on the right bus. Before each bus leaves, Shockey or a student helper removes the placard and hangs it on the metal railing.

2:53 p.m. - The first group of walkers have snaked their way down from the bike compound and have reached the curb at 54th Avenue. Devin Bonneau, 8, reaches into his backpack for his recorder and blows a few notes while he waits for Barrucci, the crossing guard, to give him the all clear signal.

2:54 p.m. - A child stops on his way to the bus to talk with Shockey about that night's concert. Shockey gives him some last-minute advice for giving the best performance.

2:55 p.m. - The bike compound is empty. The first bus pulls onto 54th Avenue.

2:56 p.m. - The second and third buses depart. A boy with an orange safety sash, realizing that a student has missed his bus, darts over to the fourth bus and groans, "Oh, man!"

2:57 p.m. - From his post in the car circle, assistant principal Carey catches sight of a child in a lavender bike helmet who is in too big a hurry to get home. "Walk that bike!" he calls out to her.

2:59 p.m. - Principal Turner approaches Kheron Cunningham, 6, the kindergartener who has missed the bus. "I need you to be on time," she says gently. Then she turns to Shockey and asks if there's a way to get Kheron another ride.

3 p.m. - All walkers and bike riders have cleared the campus. Speech therapist Millicent Major, stationed at the top of the car circle, opens the back door of a Jeep Wrangler for a small child, says hello to the child's mom, then slams the door shut. She waves the mom on so the next vehicle can move up. A child nearly darts out into the circle when she sees her mom's car. Painter, the reading coach, working alongside Major, puts a restraining hand on the girl's shoulder. "Wait behind the yellow line," she says. Back in the bus line, Kheron is told to stay put while the adults find a way to get him home.

3:05 p.m. - Darren Peterson, 10, reclines on his backpack on the covered walkway in the car circle, savoring a red Tootsie-Pop while he waits for his ride. A friend, 10-year-old Dylan Fay, sits beside him and gets a head start on his spelling homework. Nearby, Nicholas Champasy, 7, Alex Stephen, 9, Jose Batres, 9, and his cousin Saul Gonzalez, 7, flip through the pages of a motorcycle magazine.

3:06 p.m. - A woeful-looking Kheron chews on the strap of his backpack while he awaits his fate in the bus line. As Bus 8 passes by slowly, Shockey darts after it, calling for the driver to stop. After a talk with the driver and the bus assistant, Shockey helps Kheron board. The bus will make a detour to drop him at his normal stop.

3:08 p.m. - Back in the car circle, Carey waves and smiles at a parent who stops at the pickup point. "Many of our parents, all they can say in English is "hello' and "goodbye,' " he says.

3:09 p.m. - A bus pulls up in the bus line and lets down a mechanized platform for a girl in a wheelchair. As Shockey helps to load the chair, he tells another child to stay behind the rail that divides the student area from the bus path.

3:11 p.m. - A boy does a fast shuffle toward his bus, which the principal laughingly imitates as she calls, "Dennis, Dennis, slow walk!" At the end of the line, Heather Hall, 7, realizes she is missing her backpack. She alerts Shockey and Turner, who search the immediate area. Not finding it, Turner sends Heather back to her classroom and tells the bus driver to wait. "She's got homework, so we've got to get her backpack," she explains. Minutes later, Heather walks up, dragging her wheeled pack behind. As she gets on the bus, the principal says to her: "Don't forget to do your homework."

3:15 p.m. - Things are winding down in the car circle. Carey rounds up about a dozen children who are still waiting for their rides and walks them to the office. He and the principal have a rule: Children who aren't picked up 30 minutes after dismissal are taken to R Club, in the school cafeteria. Their first visit is free, but the next time they are charged $15. Parents are usually on time after that, says the principal.

3:18 p.m. - Jesse Jimenez, 10, stands inside the door of the office, a blue backpack slung over his shoulder, and watches for his mom through the window. The school secretary has already called home to make sure she's coming. Turns out Jesse's dad's car broke down and Mom had to arrange for a tow truck. Turner says it's her responsibility to stay until the last child has left the campus. "Principals are public servants," she says. "I believe in servant leadership." Meanwhile, the last bus, the one that goes to the Broderick Park Recreation Center afterschool program in Pinellas Park, pulls out. Heather and her backpack are safely aboard.

3:20 p.m. - Barrucci, the crossing guard, begins collecting her orange traffic cones and prepares to leave for the day. After 13 years of helping Blanton kids cross 54th Avenue, she knows most of their names. "I wouldn't go anywhere else," she says. "Some of the ones I knew in the beginning have babies of their own now." Meanwhile, a visiting reporter is still wondering what happened to Mom's scorpion.

[Last modified May 1, 2005, 08:47:20]

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