Learning Curve: Jamel's Garden

TAMPA -

WUSF continues its series, The Learning Curve at Just Elementary. We tracked parents, faculty and students as they worked throughout the year to improve the school's failing grade given by the state.

The Tampa school is nestled just north of a public housing area and in the shadow of downtown. It has 700 students almost all are from low-income families.

When class started last fall, Principal Tricia MacManus was focused on three ways to improve student learning and test scores. Her plans were to track individual student data, offer engaged Instruction and to build a community.

The state has yet to release all the scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but Principal MacManus says other tests indicate her students are doing better.

'We feel confident we definitely will not be in the F category going into the next school year,' MacManus says.

Lynette Henry is a guidance counselor and one of the volunteers who supervised the Gentlemen's and Ladies' clubs. Another of the community building activities. As members, students got to earn outings like a visit to a fancy restaurant and to see the Lion King. Sixty-two students started, 43 ended the year with the club.

But, maybe the most memorable and enduring activity that brought together the school was the building of a community garden. It was Coach Dawn McPhillips' idea as a way to remember Jamel - a kindergartener who drowned this year in the Hillsborough River.

The children helped arrange and plant the flowers. A profusion of pink impatients and pentas is surrounded by wood chips. Blue, green, yellow, purple and red handprints cover the school's white stucco wall.

The handprints on the wall are from students in Ms. Moss' class, Jamel's teacher.

'We just thought it was a way for his classmates to say that they're always holding his hand even though he's in heaven,' McPhillips says.

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