Monday, November 20, 2017
Education

Irma gave public schools a chance to showcase their role — and they jumped at it

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TAMPA — Rhonda Combs had finished storing her photo albums and scrapbooks in big plastic bags. There was nothing left to do but go stir crazy, waiting for Hurricane Irma.

So she drove to McKitrick Elementary School, where she teaches kindergarten, and saw volunteers escorting families to the classrooms where they would seek shelter. Combs found those assigned to her room. She helped carry some of their bags.

"For me, it was nice to see who was in my room," she said. She showed them pictures of her family. Their response almost brought her to tears. "Everybody was just so thankful and so nice."

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Find all our coverage about Hurricane Irma here

Across Florida in recent days, the efforts of school employees like Combs did not go unnoticed. At a time when government-run schools are often taken for granted and their employees feel locked in battle with the privately run charter schools, a looming catastrophe can serve as a reminder of a school system's importance.

And champions of the public school system are only too happy to drive that point home.

"At every Irma shelter I visit," Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tweeted, "I am greeted by the smiling faces of [Miami-Dade] employees who are putting needs of others before their own."

Heidi Maier, superintendent of the Marion County schools, hailed her staff for "sacrificing so others are safe."

In Hillsborough, which is now implementing a communications plan that relies heavily on social media, the district documented work by its transportation, nutrition and security staff.

Photos and video interviews were available days before the storm even hit. "We had a chance to tell our story," said Perselphone Johnson, a bus driver who volunteered to transport elderly and disabled residents to a shelter, then gave a video interview during her lunch hour.

Bradley Woods, the principal of Wharton High School, was photographed hauling sandbags and called an "everyday hero."

Throughout the weekend, the images multiplied: A picture of the principal of Knights Elementary and her secretary, making pizza for their guests. News that a woman had gone into labor at Sessums Elementary.

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Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, retweeted them from around the state, typically with an introduction that said, "Thank you for being such an integral part of your community."

Melissa Erickson, founder of the Alliance for Public Schools, wasn't subtle. "Hillsborough schools must be built to sustain hurricanes," she tweeted. "NOTE: Charter schools are not!"

The high-fives continued days later, with photos of school staff cleaning up for Monday's return to classes.

Grayson Kamm, the district's community relations chief, said he was happy to showcase the hard work of his coworkers at a time when everyone had reason to be concerned about their own homes and families.

"They were putting their lives on the line and they definitely deserve our attention and praise," he said. "That this operation went so smoothly is a testament to the dedication of so many people."

Superintendent Jeff Eakins, for his part, said Irma opened his eyes to the many roles a large school system can play in a crisis.

Beyond logistics, it reminded him that children feel safe at school. As the schools became shelters, he said, that role continued. "Our schools did allow the sense of anxiety to be eased, and (school employees) were spot on caring for them."

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After the storm, International Baccaulaureate teacher Ryan Haczynski reflected on the public relations effects. In recent months, Haczynski, who works at Strawberry Crest High, has made a name for himself as a podcaster and sometime critic of the way Hillsborough spends money and treats its teachers.

He did not like the idea of using the crisis to accentuate the differences between government and charter schools. But when it came to the promotional tweets and videos, "I was glad to see that they were showcasing our ability to come together as community," Haczynski said. "I think they need a lot of goodwill and I think that this bought them some."

He knows that all too soon, talk will return to troublesome issues such as politics, union bargaining and the need for maintenance funds, which became all-too-apparent when the storm approached.

"It's unfortunate that it takes a storm for people to pull together and notice the good things that are happening," Haczynski said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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