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Parents and students send out SOS

They're building a case to save Riviera Middle School. The kids are thinking world records might help.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 16, 2007

Jeff Bowen leads his seventh- and eighth-grade wind ensemble students in rehearsing John Edmondson's "Briarwood Overture."
Martha Rial | Times

Saddened by the near certainty that their school will be closed in June, a group of sixth-graders posed a poignant question to their language arts teacher last week.

If they could set a Guinness world record, the children wondered, would it be enough to get district leaders to change their minds about tearing down Riviera Middle School?

Annessa Mortensen thought carefully before answering. She didn't want to crush the children's spirit, but she knew the chances of a reprieve for Riviera were slim.

While the number of Pinellas schools slated for closure has been reduced from 10 to four in recent weeks, Riviera remains on the list.

"I got goose bumps listening to them talk about it," Mortensen said. "They might not break any records, but at least this will show the district how much the kids care."

Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox hinted in July that Riviera was a likely candidate for closure in the face of declining student enrollment districtwide. A report earlier this month confirmed enrollment had dropped another 3,000 students this year, down about 6,000 from a high of 112,520 in 2003.

The likelihood of Riviera's closing came into sharper focus last week when board members removed more than $360-million in projects from the district's long-term construction budget, a move prompted by lower tax collections, uncertain fiscal projections and a decision to reduce the district's tax rate.

A few of the projects, including the reconstruction of Largo High School, probably will be added back. But it looks as though a $48-million reconstruction of Riviera Middle is off the list for good.

The situation confounds Minetha Morris, president of Riviera's Parent Teacher Student Association.

"We really have been out of the loop," Morris said. "At the end of last year, we were told the school was being renovated. At the beginning of this year, it was: 'Riviera is going to be closed.'"

Morris said she selected the school for her 13-year-old daughter Sapphire because it's 15 minutes from home. In an era when the district is trying to get kids to a "close to home" school and reduce busing costs, she said, it doesn't make sense to send them farther away.

Zabrina Glenn said she chose Riviera for her daughter Kayla because of the school's award-winning marching band program, the only one of its kind in south Pinellas. Now, Glenn says, Kayla, 12, will have to transfer in her last year of middle school to a school that doesn't have as rigorous a program.

Other parents praised the school's math and engineering strand and its fundamental-like program. But few could discount the reality that Riviera has challenges.

The school has been underchosen since 2002 when families first were allowed to select from a variety of schools in their attendance area. As a result, the district assigned to Riviera many children whose parents had made no choice for them.

The number of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has risen since then, from 49 percent to 64 percent. The number of gifted students has fallen from 3 percent to 0.9 percent.

Despite the difficulties, passionate parents are ramping up efforts to save the school. Members of the School Advisory Council plan to show up at the next School Board meeting and speak up at community meetings designed to give parents a chance to speak out on the new student assignment plan.

The most heartfelt effort to keep the school open could come from the kids who want to set a Guinness world record.

Among the ideas they've come up with is writing the world's longest letter, which would be addressed to the School Board.

They've also talked about creating the world's largest banner, one big enough to wrap around the school like a ribbon.

Printed on the banner would be a simple message: Please save our school.

[Last modified September 16, 2007, 01:28:37]

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