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Keeping school open is parents' deep passion

It looks like Largo Central Elementary will be closed, but those with ties to it vow to fight on.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007

Kristin Vogt-Gonzalez has a plea to keep Largo Central Elementary open written on her car window with shoe polish.
[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
Courtney Guynn, 7, Nic Cristello, 10, and Justin Guynn, 5, leave Largo Central Elementary School with Kristin Vogt-Gonzalez, Courtney and Justin's mother. The students may be reassigned to new schools next August.

LARGO - For nearly two hours, the parents stood at the entrance of Pinellas school district headquarters holding signs and chanting.

Keep our school open!

Don't close our school!

Sweat poured from their faces in the 90-degree heat. Their children, wearing bright yellow T-shirts decorated with blue paw prints, chanted alongside them.

Finally, about 6 p.m., they trooped upstairs. One after another, they begged superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the seven School Board members to change their minds about closing Largo Central Elementary.

They knew it was a long shot. In the past month, as the number of Pinellas schools destined for closure in 2008-09 shrunk from 10 to four, Largo Central has remained on the list.

"We've been told it's a done deal," said Debbie Stotts, whose 12-year-old daughter, Ashley, was among those who addressed the board. "But I've put my heart and soul into that school. I have to keep hoping."

Tuesday marked the second time Largo Central parents approached the board since Wilcox announced in July that the school would be torn down to accommodate the renovation of Largo High School. After hearing last week that new construction throughout the district may be on hold, some of the parents now want the superintendent to explain why the school is still under consideration for closure.

"There needs to be a conversation," Stotts said. "There needs to be more than just, 'Your school is going to be closed.'"

Maureen Minutolo, whose daughter is a fifth-grader at Largo Central, said there's a noticeable sadness at the school this year, even though the teachers are trying to carry on as if nothing has changed.

The difference was evident the night before school started, Minutolo said, when one of the teachers approached her at a "meet and greet" with tears in her eyes.

"They're trying to keep it from the children," she said. "But my daughter says it's very quiet. She says it's not the same."

While the teachers are trying to keep their "game faces" on, they've also begun to accept the fact that they likely will be working at different schools this time next year, said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. Representatives from the teachers union already have met with them to explain their options, Moore said.

"What we'll do is give them all a voluntary transfer form," he said. "We guarantee them an interview with their first-choice school and explain that the principal at that school would have to have a very good reason not to take them."

But reassigning teachers is only one element of closing a school, said board member Linda Lerner. More important - and perhaps more difficult - will be deciding how to reassign the school's 447 students.

"Dr. Wilcox and the staff said they would work on that and give us more information," Lerner said. "But for now, the decision to close Largo Central, South Ward, Clearview Avenue and Riviera Middle School is going forward."

Getting the Largo Central parents to face that reality may be difficult. A petition already has garnered hundreds of signatures and continues to circulate. The parents plan to attend every board meeting between now and the final vote, which they expect will come in November when the new student assignment plan is approved.

They also plan to show up en masse at a series of community meetings scheduled for September.

"I will fight it until the school is knocked down," said Kristin Vogt-Gonzalez, whose two children attend Largo Central. "After the school is knocked down, I'll fight to rebuild it. I will not let this go."

Fast facts

Speak out

Parents can weigh in on the school district's new student assignment plan as well as possible school closures from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at community meetings:

Sept. 18 at Palm Harbor University High, 1900 Omaha St.

Sept. 26 at Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo

Sept. 27 at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S, St. Petersburg


[Last modified September 1, 2007, 21:24:36]

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