Positive reinforcement can be tough to come by for students at Sulphur Springs Elementary School. Awards are scarce, as well. For children in a neighborhood known for crime and poverty, avoiding violence and staying off the streets can be as much of a challenge as doing homework and maintaining the minimum grade level.
That's why it made local headlines last month when a group of teachers at Sulphur Springs was named Florida's Elementary Reading Leadership Team of the Year by Just Read! Florida. The recognition marked the school's dramatic improvement from an F grade in 2008 to a B in 2009 for an institution originally headed in decline.
On Wednesday, the Buccaneers showed their appreciation for Sulphur Springs' achievement by holding a surprise assembly to help the school carry out its objective of promoting reading and education to some of Tampa's neediest children.
Over 500 students and teachers gathered on the school's blacktop as Principal Dr. Christi Buell welcomed the surprise guests from One Buccaneer Place: Head Coach Raheem Morris, defensive end Stylez G. White, several Buccaneers Cheerleaders and mascot Captain Fear. Morris and his Buccaneer crew congratulated the students on their impressive accomplishment.
The Reading Leadership Team of the Year award is given annually to one school in the state to promote literacy efforts. At Sulphur Springs, where 99.6 percent of students qualify for reduced-price lunches, administration risked having to close the school at the end of the year if grades did not improve.
"We worked really hard to provide the right type of academic intervention to guarantee their academic growth and because of that, last year we were able to pull our grade up to a B," said Buell. "We were just three points behind an A, and we actually increased 156 points from last year. We felt very strongly that this community needed a community school for the children to go to."
Dr. Buell introduced the crowd to Morris, who praised the students and teachers for working hard to raise their reading grade.
"I want to congratulate everybody out here for taking your grades from an F to a B – that's unbelievable," said Morris. "That is the absolute best thing you can do as far as being in school. Reading is the best thing you can do."
Morris then led the students in a "TAMPA – BAY" cheer reminiscent of crowd chants at Raymond James Stadium before sharing his story of becoming a head coach and the steps it took to make it to the NFL.
"Me telling you how I became a football coach has a lot to do with what you all are doing now, how you lead your peers, and going out and developing yourself and becoming the best person you can be," he said. "But first off, it starts with reading and becoming the best reader that you can be."
The students also received congratulatory remarks from White and cheerleaders Susan Stein and Tramane Shuler, who echoed Morris' message.
"To get as far as I have, I first had to learn to read all of my text books," Shuler explained. "Reading is very fundamental; you learn the more you read, and I just want to congratulate you all on your improvement."
Added Stein: "I definitely wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for reading. It's so important to incorporate it every day. And as you see it has paid off!"
The group of Buccaneers also fielded questions from the students, ranging from what it took to become a professional football player or cheerleader to how often they read. As a small token to leave with, each student was given a Buccaneers bookmark featuring Morris to help with their reading and serve as a reminder of their exciting accomplishment.
"It takes a lot of people working together with the same goal in mind, and we have a great staff here," said Buell of the school's incredible improvement. "But most importantly, we're all in it for the kids. We want these students to be able to be educated in their own community."
As the students filed out at the conclusion of the assembly, each received one final surprise of the day: free ice cream for everyone, compliments of Blue Bell. The cold treat served as yet another reward for a hard-working school on a hot and sunny afternoon.
"We love the enthusiasm of the Bucs, and it's important for us because it's probably the best motivation that I can give the students and teachers for their hard work," the principal added. "I can cheer them on all day long, but when someone else in the community comes out and says 'Great job, we recognize you,' that's the best form of motivation that I can give them."