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Busing's last divide

Many parents of more than 100 students in Largo, part of the last rotation for desegregation, will not let their children be bused to Campbell Park Elementary. The school they see doesn't resemble the one described by parents and educators at Campbell Park.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE and JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Those who know Campbell Park Elementary School and the neighborhood of the same name have heard it all before.

The worried talk circulates whenever the school district sends a new batch of pupils to the school. It gets aired at high-volume School Board meetings. And usually it blasts the idea of riding a school bus long distances, the school itself and the school's neighborhood.

It has just happened again. Last week, parents of more than 100 students at Largo's Walsingham Elementary were told they are next, that they are part of the last student rotation for desegregation.

More than half of the students simply won't go. Parents will send their children to private school. They will home-school them. They will do something else. But they won't go to Campbell Park.

The episode is nothing new to the people closest to Campbell Park -- in both the physical and emotional sense -- the school's staff, pupils, parents and neighbors.

"It's an instant replay," said Iveta Martin Berry, president of the Campbell Park Neighborhood Association.

She lived there before the school opened in 1961. She has heard plenty of criticism from parents who objected to their children being bused to the school. The latest barrage doesn't faze her.

"It doesn't bother me because every two years, that's what they go through. Then when they get here, they like it," Mrs. Berry said.

The School Board last week unanimously approved Superintendent Howard Hinesley's recommendations to transfer 2,657 students next year, among them about 100 from Walsingham to Campbell Park.

Every two years since 1971, the School Board has selected a new group of white students to bus to predominantly black neighborhoods. The district, which has settled the federal lawsuit that led to ratios, is required to implement one final rotation before another system called "controlled choice" starts in a few years.

Walsingham parents' objections to having their children bused to the modest African-American neighborhood has nothing to do with race, they say.

One mother, though, who disagrees with desegregation, spoke frankly of her fears of being the only white woman in the community when she made a recent reconnaissance to the area.

It really is about the distance their young children will have to travel each day, the Walsingham parents say. They also are concerned about renovations to the school that will bring further upheaval for their children.

Besides, in their view, the Campbell Park neighborhood is overrun with crime. It has what they think are boarded-up crack houses and a child molester living nearby. Further, people they have seen on the streets make them uncomfortable. In short, Campbell Park is not the place for their children.

Campbell Park parents, some of whose children have been bused in from other neighborhoods, paint an entirely different picture. Although they had doubts when their children began school there, some say, their experiences made them come to love the school.

While parents resent criticism of Campbell Park, principal James Steen is sanguine.

"We can't be defensive about this. We know who we are and what we're all about. If we become defensive, we play right into (the critics') hands, even though some of the things that are said are hurtful," Steen said.

The view from Walsingham

If anything seems to concern Walsingham parents, it is what they perceive as high crime in the Campbell Park neighborhood.

"I had never heard of Campbell Park," said Debbie Ciechowski, who has two children who would be bused to the school.

"We went down to see the school and we kept an open mind. It took us 42 minutes on a Saturday in the car, and then we saw the neighborhood. . . . I was scared. You should have seen the characters walking around. You know when they wear their hats backwards they are gangbangers. . . . And the graffiti as we were coming into the neighborhood. So we just said, absolutely not. It's not going to happen. If it was a closer school and it was a different neighborhood, we wouldn't have had a problem."

Mrs. Ciechowski said she asked the St. Petersburg Police Department for crime statistics for the neighborhood.

"I didn't even feel safe going to the (St. Petersburg) Police Department," she said, adding that she does not travel to St. Petersburg because everything she needs is in her own neighborhood.

Carol Holland, who sells steel for McNichols Co. in Tampa, won't send her daughter to Campbell Park, but says her objection to the school has nothing to do with race.

"I was very intimidated with the neighborhood. . . . There are burned-down businesses, and there are homeless people sleeping in the streets as well as the park at 8:30 in the morning. It is a predominantly black neighborhood, and I was the only white woman there, and I was a little nervous, to be honest. I was really frightened that my child would have to be in that neighborhood every day. The neighborhood affects the school," said Mrs. Holland, whose daughter will go to private school.

"We are taking money out of our 401(k) to pay for this first year," she said.

She added: "I have some real problems with desegregation in general. From everything that I have read, it has come to my attention that desegregation works for the black families, that black children are more successful when they are integrated with white children, but I have a problem that my 9-year-old white daughter should have to sit next to a minority to give him the education that he deserves. . . . I think that we're being held hostage by the NAACP."

The view from Campbell Park

Silvia Durkee's fifth-grade son used to attend Rio Vista Elementary on 83rd Avenue N just east of Fourth Street. He rides the bus for about a half-hour from his home near Gandy Boulevard, Ms. Durkee said.

"The ironic part, two years ago when they told me he was going to be bused, my first reaction was, "Oh my God, where is Campbell Park?' " Ms. Durkee said.

But her son has excelled, and Ms. Durkee said she particularly appreciates the class size and availability of computers at Campbell Park. At Rio Vista, her son's class had 26 children sharing one computer; at Campbell Park, 21 youngsters share two computers, Ms. Durkee said. A free after-school tutoring program also has impressed her.

"As far as it goes, being in a bad neighborhood, the security and safety is greater than at the school he was at," Ms. Durkee said. "When you drop children off in the morning, there's always at least two or three teachers out there greeting and crossing the children coming from the neighborhood."

Karen Coleman moved to St. Petersburg from Indiana. Her fifth-grade son and third-grade daughter have attended Campbell Park for two years.

Ms. Coleman is convinced the school has gotten "a bad rap" and said her youngsters have thrived there after having had difficulties related to their move and a divorce Ms. Coleman went through.

Her son's grades, which Ms. Coleman said were always A's or B's, had fallen. Her daughter had had trouble reading. Now, she says, the youngsters are back up to speed academically.

"It's because the school is such a caring school," Ms. Coleman said. "They have a lot of caring teachers, but mostly such a caring principal.

"The man stood there and bawled at Christmas because so many kids had brought in toys for needy families."

Though neighborhood statistics alarm Walsingham parents, Ms. Coleman said, crime has not been a concern.

"We've been at that school for two years. The kids have gone after school to the recreation center. Not one time have I heard of any crime there that has affected my children," she said.

The neighborhood

The Campbell Park neighborhood is about 15 miles and 40 minutes from Walsingham Elementary. The neighborhood includes modest dwellings, an apartment complex and a city park with ball fields, a playground area and a swimming pool. It is in the shadow of Tropicana Field, and downtown buildings are visible to the east. School youngsters use the park. Their parents must sign a permission slip for them to do so.

A boarded-up house on 11th Street S across from the school worried parents who came to see the neighborhood. There is another one around the corner on Sixth Avenue S. Both properties are being purchased by the School Board to accommodate school expansion.

A new house is being built across from the school on Seventh Avenue. Nearby, another house, jacked up on steel beams, recently was moved to the neighborhood. Both have gone through the city's permitting process.

Pending St. Petersburg voter approval on March 27, the school system will lease about 3 acres of park land for the new school.

"We feel our school is very safe and we are surrounded by very loving and caring neighbors who watch out for us when we are away," Steen, the principal, said in a Feb. 16 memo to Hinesley.

"People are simply afraid of the unknown."

The future

Steen chooses to emphasize what the school will become when it is rebuilt.

Campbell Park is ranked No. 2 nationally to receive a grant to start a marine science magnet program in partnership with the University of South Florida, Steen said. The grant would bring in about $1-million for three years, he said.

In another partnership, USF and Campbell Park would like to collaborate on a model teaching program. Education professors at the college will take a turn in the classroom at Campbell Park, work with the elementary school teachers and show their own education students that they can apply academic theory to the real world. Teaching interns will have their own space at the elementary school.

"We can't see another model like it in the nation," Steen said.

Campbell Park also will have a foreign language course and will emphasize building a culture within the school that encourages character, unity and school spirit.

Such programs should help encourage parents to select Campbell Park for their children when the school system's controlled choice begins in 2003, officials say.

"I feel when the marine science program and the university gets into that school, people will want to go there," said William Heller, the USF-St. Petersburg dean. "And there won't be enough space for them."

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