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Tampa Neighborhood Commits To Help Troubled School

Mort Elementary School is one of Tampa’s lowest-performing elementary schools situated in one the most troubled neighborhoods in Hillsborough County.

In 25 years though, officials are hoping it will be a model of success.

Local businesses, non-profits and other groups are coming together and making a long-term commitment to improving Mort Elementary and the surrounding neighborhoods. As what's called a community model school, it might soon be home to a free clinic, social services and other community resources.

It's an ambitious goal in one of the area's poorest neighborhoods.

At Mort, more than 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. And the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger calculates that residents miss nearly 1.4 million meals each year.

And after two years with an "F" rating on student standardized tests, Mort recently moved up to a "D."

Principal Woodland Johnson said the community school project acknowledges the issues of a transient and impoverished community.

“We need to stabilize the community and the keep the students within our area, so then we can actually catch them up academically,” Johnson said.

Mort's campus is located just west of the University of South Florida, in an area that has gained the derogatory nickname: 'Suitcase City'. 

For decades, the surrounding neighborhoods have been characterized by their overabundance of low-rent housing and motels.  Johnson said around 50 to 60 percent of students who attend the school don’t return the next year, he said.

Also, the area has one of the highest rate of violent crime in the county, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.  

Johnson said these community-wide issues are reflected in the roughly 800 students who attend the school. 

“When you are trying to help these students meet the standards in reading or math, those are some pretty extreme barrier,” Johnson said.

Officials and community members both understand that turning around Mort and the surrounding community will be a tough undertaking.

And so do parents such as Lashanda Copeland, the parent of a kindergartner and first-grader at the school.

Copeland already volunteers as a Walking School Bus leader. Every morning and afternoon . She walks neighborhood children to and from Mort, which means crossing the six lanes of busy Bearss Avenue with nearly a dozen children in tow.

In addition to the need for increased policing, Copeland said she does hope an extended after school care program will be part of the changes.

“A lot of our younger children are hanging out with drug dealers,  people they shouldn’t be around, getting in trouble, getting locked up, but it’s only because they have no place to go,” Copeland said.

Plan Looks At Whole School

Later this month, the Hillsborough County School Board is expected to officially recognize Mort Elementary as Florida’s 16th community model school. Florida’s legislature this year collectively awarded the state's community schools $1.5 million in grants.

Once the plan is approved, the non-profit Children’s Home Society of Florida will start helping Mort secure project grants and recruit new community partners.

Groups that already have signed up include Schoolhouse Products, Inc. of Tampa, which  already has drawn up sketches for redesigning the school's math and science classrooms and upgrading their technology. Publix has also signed on to create and fund a food pantry.

The University of South Florida and Tampa Family Health Centers also have said they want to donate resources.

Eliza McCall-Horne, executive director for the Children’s Home Society, said community buy-in and grants will cover much of the program's costs. Long-term goals at Mort, she said, include building a new gymnasium and creating a community clinic.

“It’s a very holistic approach, in that we aren’t just focused on one classroom or one student, we are focused on the school, the community and the parent,” McCall-Horne said.

The model at Mort is loosely based off of the plans already in motion at Evans High School in Orlando. Evans is only a quarter of the way into the 25-year project, but has already seen some progress, McCall-Horne said.

The graduation rate at Evans has increased from around 60 percent five years ago to 90 percent in 2016. Participation in the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, McCall-Horne said, has gone from a handful of families to over 100.

“You have students and parents now who are not looking for ways to get enrolled in another school,” she said.

Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.
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