Memorial Middle School is storybook red brick schoolhouse that has seen a lot of change. It has stood proudly on a tree-lined street across from an equally gorgeous library in the heart of Seminole Heights, one Tampa Bay’s historic neighborhoods, since 1925. Generations of Tampa Bay students attended dances and pep rallies at Memorial, and over the years, the faces of those students changed as the city grew. As in many urban centers across the country, the middle of the century saw an upper-income constituency departing for the suburbs while working-class families of color moved in.
Memorial was converted into an adult educational center, adapting to local need. In 2001, the school was turned back into a middle school, in response to families advocating for a local school for their kids, rather than bussing them outside the neighborhood. The kids had a school, but the sense of school spirit and pride that had characterized its early days was lost. The school struggled. When the bell rang at 3 pm, Memorial and Hillsborough students would congregate at the library across the street, but as ASAS Site Coordinator Cedric Smith said, “They weren’t going in there to read books, I can tell you that.” It became a regular occurrence to see police officers arriving to break up a fight. The school was put on the Department of Education’s watch list, earmarking it as a “turnaround school” and the dances and pep rallies that used to be the heartbeat of the social scene became impossible due to student behavioral issues. If academic performance didn’t improve, the school’s governance would transfer to the state.
The Seminole Heights neighborhood became the recipient of a concerted community, nonprofit and grassroots organizational effort to create a “change pipeline.” Non-profit organizations took on specific focus areas including early education and elementary.
Until ASAS came to Memorial, the middle school sector hadn’t been “adopted.” We saw this as an opportunity to be a part of a more significant community effort. As a turnaround school, we also saw the potential for positive impact. ASAS came in ready to partner with school leadership and leverage 21st Century funding to get Memorial back on track academically.
ASAS also gave kids an alternative to loitering at the library and has helped instill a renewed sense of pride and ownership in the school. In partnership with the school’s incredible leadership, we’ve seen a sea change in student attitudes and behavior.
To entice kids to join the program, ASAS got innovative and planned a Winter Wonderland dance for program participants. Like any great party, news travels fast, and before long the entires student body wanted to attend. Responding to the overwhelming interest, ASAS opened the dance up to the entire school community. The kids had a blast. So much so that non-participants came to ASAS asking how they coordinated it. Inspired, they subsequently organized another dance, even hiring the same DJ. Memorial’s heart was beating again, and people were taking note.
Jose exemplifies this renewed sense of school pride and the academic achievement that ASAS has been able to support. Jose and his family immigrated from Cuba three years ago, and he didn’t speak any English on his first day at school. He discovered ASAS and “we can’t get him to leave and go home at the end of the day,” says Cedric. Jose explained why he loves the program: “It’s not my dad’s fault, but he has a difficult job and it takes him a while to get home. I would rather stay here with you guys than go home alone and do nothing.” Today, Jose speaks fluent English because “I stayed late, and I listened to people talk,” and he is a true champion of the program with his peers. He’s become the face of our program. He’s an ambassador for the program amongst his peers and talks about wanting to come back as a volunteer once he starts high school.
Jose reminds us that Memorial and the greater Seminole Heights area can once again be a thriving, engaged community for future generations.