It has been a tough year for Clara Craig's fourth-grade class.
Last fall, they performed poorly on statewide writing tests. Soon after, they learned a highway would slice through the neighborhood, severing their school, Mary Giella Elementary, from a nearby 113-acre park.Craig had a plan to preserve access to the "living classroom" and boost writing scores at the same time: The children began a letter-writing campaign, lobbying the state to change its plans.
"Please build a sidewalk that will keep us safe as we walk from our school to the park because we might get run over," wrote Steven Alcorn, 9.
The kids triumphed.
Transportation officials were so impressed that they visited the school last month with a $200,000 plan to build a sidewalk beneath the Suncoast Parkway.
"I've been doing this since '73 and I've never gotten letters from a fourth-grade class," said Raymond Ashe Jr. of the Florida Turnpike district. "The letters were well-written and brought out a lot of good points. They didn't just say they wanted it. They told us why."
Craig, who treated her class to a celebration at Crews Lake Park, is thrilled. She has some experience with community activism; in her neighborhood, she helped defeat a proposed medical waste incinerator several years ago.
"They really didn't believe they would be able to change anything," she said. "Now they see they can make a difference."
Her class had been building a model city out of wood in November when they heard about the plans for the parkway.
The class had just voted on a controversial project in their "city" - whether to build a football stadium or a park. (They compromised and made room for both.)
"Everything we were doing mirrored real life," Craig said.
When Craig learned sidewalks were not included in the plans for the parkway, she contacted Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri.
The school uses the park several times a year for field trips, science classes and special events. If the school had to rent a bus to get the children to the park, most would not be able to pay the $5 bus fare, Craig said.
Mulieri, a community college English teacher, suggested the letter-writing campaign and forwarded the letters to Tallahassee.
After their letter-writing campaign, Craig's class drew plans in marker and crayon for tunnels, overpasses and bridges and submitted those to transportation officials.
Within two weeks, the class had a response - a letter from the Department of Transportation thanking them for their suggestions and a pen for each child to encourage them to continue writing.
State officials recently announced they would include sidewalks under the overpass, even though the design for that stretch of road had been finalized.
The state considered the children's designs but ruled out a $700,000 overpass suggestion by Allen Wynn, 10.
"It was a good idea but a little cost-prohibitive," said Tim Hammer, a turnpike consultant. "I think we may have a few future engineers here."
That state officials listened to the fourth-graders stunned Debby Chaple, whose daughter Meghan, 10, wrote a second letter of thanks, which she read at the celebration party.
"I told her not to get their hopes up," she said. "They've already spent a lot of money for this road. I didn't think they'd change a thing."
The $200,000 to build the sidewalks will come from a reserve account. It's a substantial amount but worth every penny, officials said.
"We're not going to have to hold a bake sale to raise it," said Ashe, the turnpike manager. "But I'm sure the students at Mary Giella would help us if we did."