Readers give kids a chance to flourish

Published May 20, 2007

After the last strains of music died down, Robertina Soto left her seat and walked over to hug her son, Marco.

The 12-year-old had just received an armful of certificates and awards at the Lacoochee Elementary fifth grade celebration - he was the only boy to get the Presidential gold award. He also earned awards for good citizenship and perfect attendance.

His mother couldn't speak much English, but the way she hugged him for what seemed like eternity, her emotions were understandable in any language.

"He did very well," said the mother of four as her son translated.

The teachers and staff at Lacoochee Elementary have a special challenge. At this east Pasco school, over 80 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Many come from homes where English is a foreign language. Some must visit the jail to see their parents.

Despite those obstacles, teachers have to push the students and keep their expectations high. They have to constantly remind themselves and each other that students' home circumstance say nothing about their potential to learn and dream.

Still, schools need money. And some years, there wasn't enough left over for perfect attendance certificates and other awards for the fifth-graders. But this year was special, different. And the fifth-graders can thank you for that.

When the school planned the fifth-grade school trip to Kennedy Space Center this spring, not everyone could afford it. At the time, I thought it was one of those things people needed to know. If there's a need, folks always respond. I was right.

Readers who saw the column opened their hearts and their checkbooks. The phones at Lacoochee Elementary were ringing all day after the story appeared. Later, the checks started arriving in the mail.

One person sent a $500 check with a note: "I wish it could be for more, but maybe this will help with expenses for some of the children. I'm sure this will be not only a fun trip but also a great educational opportunity."

One donor sent $20 accompanied by these priceless words: "I wish every child should have the opportunity to take field trips and learn-learn-learn."

The school received $2, 300 in donations, and the phone calls and letters keep coming.

Money left over from the field trip was used for Friday's fifth- grade celebration.

"This is something that happens because of the generosity of people who used their heart to think with," principal Karen Marler said. "Sometimes it's hard to think with your heart."

But when it comes to kids and education, there is no other option. And it pays dividends.

That's why the field trip was so important. A Lacoochee Elementary education can change a child's perspective.

As the start of the school year when teacher Christy Parry asked how many of her fifth- grade students planned to go to college, she was disappointed by how few hands were raised. So near the end of Friday's ceremony, Parry asked the question again.

Every student raised their hand. Marco Soto was right in the middle of them. He has big dreams, too. He wants to be a doctor. He knows he has lots of folks, like you, rooting for him.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.