Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Education

Lee Elementary, rich with history and contradictions, will move to another school

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TAMPA — Crews continued to pour water on a fire-ravaged school while across town, Hillsborough County district leaders worked to relocate 329 students and 49 employees.

And all the while, smoldering like the fire itself, was the issue that wouldn't go away:

The name.

"Robert E. Lee Elementary" is what it says in white letters on the school's red brick facade.

"Lee Elementary Magnet School of World Studies & Technology" has been its proper name for about a decade.

Months ago, speakers were lining up at School Board meetings to debate whether the name was insensitive for honoring a Confederate general or instructive in Southern history.

Parents and teachers on Wednesday, gathering at 305 E Columbus Dr. to share feelings of loss and bewilderment, reacted dismissively and sometimes angrily when asked about the issue.

"It's everybody else's controversy, not our controversy," said Barry Shalinsky, whose 8-year old son, Elijah, was learning about Africa at Lee this year.

"This is our school and we are a community."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Flames consume school in Tampa Heights

Lee's students, who will report Monday to nearby Lockhart Elementary, are leaving a school steeped in history and contradictions.

Built in 1906 as the Michigan Avenue Grammar School, it's of a generation of public structures that were given the names of Confederate leaders as a way to honor a Southern heritage that came under attack in the 20th century.

In the 1990s, it was one of two schools chosen to be part of a system of magnets aimed at racially integrating classrooms and that later helped replace court-ordered desegregation.

"Magnet schools were designed to pull kids in that typically would not have attended that school so that the schools would thrive," said Sue Allen, one of the educators who designed the early magnets.

Lee's theme was technology, coming when personal computers were rare and the internet did not exist. It's teachers were "the cream of the crop," Allen said.

More than a decade later, Lee added a world studies focus. Students participated out of state in the Model United Nations, rare for elementary grades.

Parents showed up at school events with slow-cookers of food from a variety of nations. Neighbors celebrated both the school's stately architecture and the multicultural activities inside.

"The neighborhood was integrated into the school, and the school was integrated into the neighborhood," said Adam Fritz, a father of two Lee students. Seeing the blaze on Tuesday night, he said, "it was devastating."

This much is known about the fire: It began sometime after the surrounding Tampa Heights neighborhood regained electrical power lost during Hurricane Irma. The school was not among the 40 used as shelters.

But, as in all schools, the principal was asked to inspect it on Tuesday. It seemed fine, said Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer.

At 6:45 p.m. Tampa Fire Rescue received reports of heavy flames from the northwest portion of the roof.

Three engines responded, fighting the fire defensively because no one was inside and the roof showed signs of collapse.

School officials could not say if there was a sprinkler system, or when the electrical system had last been inspected.

Just a short time before the fire, schools superintendent Jeff Eakins had decided to keep all schools closed for six more days, after a conversation with TECO about the widespread power outages.

Safety was a concern, said Farkas, noting that sometimes, "when the power comes on, things go wrong."

Damages are estimated at nearly $5 million, including the value of the building and what is inside it.

It's not clear if the district will try and salvage the school. "We haven't even been able to get inside to assess the full damage," said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

BACK STORY: Hillsborough to move slowly on whether to rename school

With flames still filling the sky on Tuesday evening, Eakins vowed to keep all of the students and teachers together.

He and his team spent Wednesday determining where and how. With many urban schools under-enrolled, there were numerous options.

They chose Lockhart, another magnet school that was built for 659 students, but at last count had 360.

It's less than two miles away at 3719 N 17th St. in East Tampa. And almost adjoining Lockhart is Young Middle, where Lee's oldest students will be housed briefly so the district can add portable classrooms. Within a matter of weeks, everyone should be at Lockhart.

The children will keep their Lee teachers, who will each get $1,000 each toward the cost of replacing their belongings and supplies.

Fundraising efforts are under way, including one led by the Hillsborough Education Foundation.

Penny, cognizant of the controversy about the school name, said the Fire Marshall found no indications of foul play.

But that didn't stop speculation, including a listener poll Wednesday morning on a news radio station.

Before the fire, Hillsborough school officials were in the early stages of an 18-month public input process required before they could change the name. Doing so would put them in the company of governments and schools around the nation.

On Wednesday, as children ran around near the still-smoldering building, adults tried to deflect conversations away from the name. Some wore shirts that said "Fami-LEE."

Tamara Shamburger, the School Board member who has argued forcefully to rename the school, chose her words carefully.

"Right now our focus is on the students and on the staff and getting them settled," she said.

But, reflecting on the multiracial gatherings of support, she said, "I think that this tragedy is a really good example and really demonstrates why the name really needs to be changed.

"We saw the unity and inclusion and togetherness and not division."

Staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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