POINCIANA – As communities grow, the residents typically seek out places where they can meet to socialize and do things together – a popular restaurant or café, a community center, maybe a local park.
In Poinciana, it’s a local elementary school that’s trying to fill this void — and succeeding.
“We are so far out – as far as you can go into Polk County,” said Luis Alvarez, principal of Palmetto Elementary School. “There aren’t many things for kids to do in this part of Polk County, so we started a movie night here. We show a free movie and we have PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) sales of popcorn, that type of thing.”
An elementary school might sound like an odd choice as a place for people to hang out at, but Poinciana’s history has a bedroom community means the homes got built first, and the community has been slow to develop all the things that usually follow – including meeting places where families can do things together.
Poinciana has a Community Center a few miles from Palmetto Elementary on Marigold Avenue, and just celebrated the opening of its first football field at Vance Harmon Park last summer. In July, the community opened a Boys & Girls Club Teen Center as a place for teen-agers to relax and hang out together.
Still, Poinciana grew so quickly in the past decade that its 10 villages are now home to more than 84,000 people spread out across Osceola and Polk counties – and it was that sharp growth curve that prompted Polk County school officials to build Palmetto Elementary in 2007, to accommodate the rising number of students on the Polk side of Poinciana.
“Half of the population of Poinciana, on both sides, half of them are children,” said Fernando Valverde, a member of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, which is working to improve the community.
“And there are very few things for them to do here,” added Valverde, who lives on the Polk County side of Poinciana at the Solivita development, which is for active adults.
Alvarez said officials at Palmetto Elementary recognized that, and decided to use the school’s considerable space to help not just students, but parents and neighbors alike.
“We open our library and computer lab to the parents,” he said. “If they don’t have access at home, they can come here. We have a spring and fall festival that we sponsors, and we do a Medieval Times Fair in May. We had Saturday Academies last year. I had over 250 kids and their parents show up. We had 220 kids who showed up every Saturday for free tutoring in math and English. We try to give back to the kids. When it was over, the kids said to me, ‘Oh, Mr. Alvarez, no more Saturday Academies?’ They were so disappointed.”
It’s all a part of the school’s mission, Alvarez said, to become like an extended family to the neighborhood.
“You’re related to me, I will do for you, because we are a family,” he said. “Here, we tell the faculty we are a family.”
Palmetto Elementary may be just four years old, but the school has faced considerable challenges since opening its doors. Eighty-two percent of the students are of Hispanic descent, and as Alvarez noted, most of them are Puerto Rican, with a smaller mix of Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican.
Most of the students who come to the school arrive here speaking Spanish, with a few who speak Creole, he added. Of the 792 students who attend Palmetto, a large number are in dual language classes, learning in Spanish in the morning and in English-language classes in the afternoon.
“What I like at our school is we have a dual language,” Alvarez said. “Half a day, they will learn in their own language.”
Tony Claudio, a volunteer at the school and the head of its School Advisory Council, added that unlike adults, children can pick up different languages fairly quickly, and be quite fluent in both.
“We have a student, and the first year he came here, he didn’t know any English at all,” Claudio said. “He learned English right away.”
Millie Campbell, a teacher at the school, said overall her students are eager to learn and enthusiastic, despite any initial language barriers they may have.
“Some of them are lacking in skills,” she said. “They can’t read at my level – but they try. I have very few behavior problems. A majority of the kids want to succeed and excel. Kids really want approval. They want to do well.”
“Overall,” Alvarez added, “we’ve got good kids. I can’t complain. This community has been very good to us.”
A bigger challenge, Alvarez said, has been coping with budget cuts mandated by the state Legislature to cope with declining property and sales tax revenues in a weak economy. Schools have not been spared the cuts, Alvarez said.
“It’s sad. I know we’re in hard times, but this is the future of our country and town and our state,” he said. “We are tight. But we have been blessed that Polk County has been very tight in terms of how they spend money. We are tight, but not as bad as other counties, like Osceola. We have managed.”
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