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Ringing in summertime

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Hailey Bigley, left, and Josh Williams smile for a photo with guidance counselor Andrea Riendeau on Thursday at Alafia Elementary School.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 1, 2001


TAMPA -- Summer came to Hillsborough schools Thursday, bringing tears to retiring teachers and whoops of joy to children ready to trade in homework for play time.

The county's public schools bade farewell to 163,769 students after a half day of classes marked by last-minute tests, cake-and-ice cream parties and, at two high schools, false bomb threats. Classes resume Aug. 8.

photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Third-grade teacher Vonda Livingston hugs Lauren Pilkinton, 8, while saying goodbye to her students Thursday at Seffner Elementary.
Historic in many ways, the 2000-2001 school year began Aug. 9, believed to be the earliest start date ever. The school year was lengthened from the year before: 184 days instead of 180 days.

The year was marked by the end of the county's 43-year-old desegregation case, an ongoing teacher shortage and a record number of bomb threats, 125 compared to 72 last school year.

The bomb threats continued through the last day. Both Hillsborough and Brandon high schools were threatened Thursday, but after students were evacuated and searches uncovered nothing, classes resumed.

About 100 teachers taught for the last time.

"I woke up this morning and thought, this will be the happiest day of my life," said retiring Seffner Elementary teacher Vonda Livingston, hugging students and fighting back the goodbye tears. "But it's a happy day and a sad day."

That was true for some students as well.

At Wimauma Elementary in southern Hillsborough, 10-year-old Sarah Jordan was feeling a bit blue about saying so-long to classmates and teachers, if only for a short time.

"I'll miss school this summer," she said, before the last bell rang. "I wish we could go year-round."

Some of the schools were still reeling from Wednesday's release of school grades by the state.

"The students keep saying, "Did you know we're an A school?' " said Thonotosassa Elementary Principal Michele Gregory, whose school earned a C last year. "The kids and everybody are real excited."

At Wilson Middle School, language arts teacher Greg Shafer took a few minutes to impart words of wisdom to a class full of seventh-graders.

As the girls buried their faces in their hands and the boys stared at the walls, 36-year-old Shafer explained that he was going to do "one of those adult things" and give a little advice.

"Find something in what you're learning that is personal to you," he said as the students listened quietly. "It's not simply a grade. It's not simply a test.

"It's what you can learn," said Shafer, his first year at Wilson. "Reading opens up everything. Read all types of stuff. That's my little spin. So this is it. We've come to the end. I've enjoyed you guys."

After Shafer's sermon, Victor Zamora shot his hand in the air, and with all the seriousness a 13-year-old can muster, said, "I'd like to thank you for all the Cokes."

His classmates giggled.

Across town at Essrig Elementary, several flower bouquets lined the counter in the front office, gifts from appreciative parents to the teachers. Fifth-graders gathered on the playground and swapped signatures in their school yearbooks.

At Philip Shore Elementary, students were treated with ice cream sundaes before the school day melted away.

Eight-year-old Courtney Charron, a chocolate ring around her lips, wore a plain white shirt to school to have her classmates sign. It was her grandmother's idea.

"It tickles when they write on it," Charron said. "But I like it."

At Hill Middle School, reading and geography teacher Krystyna Leroe wore a gold medal her students gave her for being the "World's Greatest Teacher." The purple strap matched her purple pants suit.

It was not a coincidence. "My kids know I love purple," Leroe said.

Mid-morning, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa held a news conference at Raymond James Stadium to highlight the teacher shortage, which left about 100 vacancies in Hillsborough County.

Standing in the empty home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Democrat said Florida will need to recruit more than 162,000 teachers over the next decade as the number of teachers retiring increases as baby boomers age. He called it a mammoth task.

"We have to fill Tampa stadium 2 1/2 times," he said, motioning to the red seats behind him. "Our teachers are beginning to retire and our schools are bursting at the seams."

In Hillsborough, about 100 teachers retired so far this year, including Livingston.

After 38 years in the classroom, Livingston said she hopes to travel to the mountains and possibly return as a school volunteer. Her third-graders took turns giving her hugs and snapping pictures of her.

Joseph Trosper ran into Livingston's classroom after everyone had gone and asked, "I guess you have to retire right now?"

"Yes, I do Joseph," Livingston said, hugging the boy and wishing him well.

A few minutes later, he returned.

"Do you have a pencil and paper?" Joseph asked. "I'd like to give you my phone number in case you want to call me."

- Staff writers Kevin Graham and Tim Grant contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400.

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