Meet the Humans of the Keys

Meet the Humans of the Keys

Monday, October 17, 2016

Frankie St James, Key Largo

“I was born in Kentucky and my family moved to Homestead when I was seven years old. I graduated from South Dade High School and attended two years at Florida State University. I married a commercial fisherman, and thus the move to Key Largo. We were blessed with two beautiful children.
My friend and neighbor, Anne Cohan, convinced me to go back to school and finish my teaching degree at Florida International University. I had wanted to be a teacher since the third grade.
I began my education career in first grade at KLS (Key Largo School) and I taught in a ‘pod’ atmosphere; all the classrooms were in one big open room. They have since torn down that building to make way for the new campus.
I had a great team! My teaching team wanted to do a theme every year to get the kids excited about coming to school each day. The first theme was ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road.’ We made a yellow brick road throughout the pod and developed lessons around “The Wizard of Oz.” Anne Cohan, one of the first grade team, wrote a play from the Wizard of Oz theme and the children presented it to their parents. The following year the theme was ‘Circus’ and we hung parachutes from the ceiling to make it look like the classrooms were inside the circus tent. The principal at that time was Ed Caputo, who was a true inspiration to me as an educator. He had a true passion for education. He loved our theme idea and gave each grade $2,000 to develop a theme for their pod, a more permanent theme. We developed an ‘ Outer Space’ theme. . We created a space anomaly called a black hole. In the far right there was a mural of the earth rise and on the ceiling were lights representing the constellations. Another theme that made a big impact was ‘The Wild Kingdom’ developed by the third grade teachers. Every child was responsible for an animal including gerbils, mice, snakes, birds and Guinea pigs. When a student became proficient at caring for his/her animal, the child became a junior ranger and went to Pennekamp to be a ranger for the day. The teachers also had a token money system called Wild Kingdom Bucks The third grade team built 3 banks in the classroom. Each student had an account at the bank and served as a teller periodically. When a student became proficient dealing with the token money, they were selected to go to one of five banks in our community and work as, a teller for the day. The Wild Kingdom still exists at KLS in a smaller fashion. Such innovative programs teach students real world skills and makes learning fun.
While teaching first grade, I became a young widow. Since I was now a single Mom, I decided I needed to get my Master’s degree, so I could pursue a career in administration.
I moved to Assistant Principal serving with Dale Wolgast and then to Principal of KLS. I was at KLS for 26 years, 14 of which I was principal. There were some magical and creative things that happened while I was principal, but there was also some tragedy.
First, I have to say that none of the honors, awards, or great things that happened while I was principal could have happened without the amazing team I worked with; the Assistant Principals (AP’s), the teachers and staff. I had the best of the best. As an educational leader, I believe in surrounding
yourself with great people, and I was surrounded!! The culture of KLS was a family feeling. Kids came first and we supported one another as educators and friends!!
During my first year as principal, KLS received a Customer Focused School Grant from the State for $250,000. . Our mission to develop instructional technology in our school began with this grant. In those days the school principal handled the school budget and made critical choices of how the dollars were spent. Our priority was to become technology rich for our teachers and students!
In 1997 I had the opportunity to apply for KLS to be named a Florida Blue Ribbon School. We were one of 21 schools in Florida selected. It was such an honor to be selected, but we knew it t had not been possible without the support of our community. I decided to make big blue bows, and send one home with every child to put on their door or their mailbox; we put them on our cars and buses. I spoke at organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary to announce this honor and thank the businesses for their support. We gave each business partner a blue ribbon for the door of the business and hardy thanks from our staff. The police supported to; they tied little blue ribbons on the antennas of their police cars. It was such a great community effort! Our application then went to the U.S. Department of Education for possible recognition as a National School of Excellence. I received a phone call from the office of the President telling me we were selected as one of the 200 National Schools of Excellence; they also chose us as one of the top 3 technology schools in the nation. I was asked to speak at the conference! From that, I had “Technology and Learning Magazine” contact me for permission to write a story about our Alternative Education Programs I was asked to present at their conference in New York.
I applied for a Bell South Power to Learn Grant; it was only for schools in the southeastern U.S. The grant selected 4 schools and we were one of them. We received $250,000 and a team of experts came to our school periodically for 2.5 years to observe how technology affected student learning. . They loved our school. George Lucas was impressed by the many innovative programs at KLS and sent a team from his educational foundation to produce a video for his educational website. We were also one of the first schools in the State to become a Florida 5-Star School.
I am very passionate about education; I truly believe it is the strength of the nation. Students can succeed if schools create hands on, fun, real world activities that are academically challenging and stimulate global awareness. I do not believe state or national testing is the answer to improve schooling. I believe all kids can learn and my staff did too. We studied a book called ‘How People Learn’ and we taught the way people learn. We also studied student learning styles. I believe when you find a great school you will also find risk taking by the teachers, innovative and creative programs and culture where there is mutual respect between administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents.
We were very proud of the innovative programs at KLS. We had Alternative Education programs; for kids who have difficulty in school. These classrooms had fewer students and were themed based. Our first one was Community Connections. With the help of local businesses, the kids worked each week in a different business. They learned how to dress and what they needed in the business atmosphere, and then the kids and the businesses would rate each other. Community Connections also used a program called ‘Brain Gym’, where the kids were given exercises to access the less dominate part of their brain. The Alternative Program was so successful; we added additional theme-based alternative ed. classes to grades 4-8. One of the classes was WWKLS. The students ran a radio program in the school each day and also created PSA’s (public service announcements) for the community. A community member donated $35,000 to build a greenhouse on the campus. It was used in one of the alternative education classrooms to teach about agriculture, food preparation and selling of your goods. We had a Video Production classroom that produced a television program each morning, took some very educational and exciting field trips and competed in a District-wide video productions competition. In our synergistic lab kids built bridges and CO2 cars and learned about engineering, science and technology. We were so lucky to have school district, community and parental support!
One of traditions we started at KLS began way back, 30 years ago, when I was still a first grade teacher; on the last day of school, we would block traffic on the highway and let all the busses come out of the school at the same time. They still do that! We started a tradition still in existence, a Christmas breakfast for the teachers every year with a white elephant gift exchange. It was hilarious, we had so much fun! As principal, I started Faculty Follies, a staff talent show; not all of us have talent but we still did it. The teachers had such fun and the kids loved it.
I also believe kids need incentives. The AP’s and I brainstormed and told the kids if they reached the classroom Accelerated Reading goals, we would be on the roof in our pajamas for one hour. Needless to say, the incentive worked. We were on the roof all day! . Another year we sat in a kiddie pool and the students who reached the AR point’s goal could pour a bucket of spaghetti noodles on us. We had noodles everywhere!! The next year the students got to throw water balloons at us. I started a brag book; a teacher could send a student to me, for positive reinforcement, and the student could sign my brag book and select a prize. I still have those books.
I was a safety patrol sponsor along with KLS Media Specialist, Carter Hannah, for 30 years. We would raise money every year to take the kids to Washington DC. KLS continues the traditions of visiting our national monuments , laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, participating in the Twilight Tattoo and rolling down a grassy hill, to name a few. Other programs I established at KLS were after school activities such as middle school cheerleading, basketball, volleyball, football and a faculty daycare for staff. Daycare is expensive and we were able to keep the cost down so it was less of an impact on teachers and staff. Teacher absenteeism decreased because if a child was sick or had a problem, or if a mother wanted to nurse, she just had to go to the daycare to mother her child. The daycare was there for almost 30 years.
We had so many great things happen and so many honors bestowed on us, but we also had tragedies to get through. At the beginning of one school year, we had a teacher and her husband murdered, she was 8 months pregnant. I had to notify all the staff and hire a teacher that night. We had a support person killed by her husband in a murder/suicide. One of our teachers sheltered her 3 children for two weeks until relatives could come. As was always true of the KLS family, teachers brought food and did the laundry for the kind teacher. Another tragedy was Hurricane Andrew. My teachers were scattered. We couldn’t find 5 teachers when staff returned. We finally heard from them! We had a teacher and a custodian who were hit hard; we took our trucks and assisted them in moving their belongings to a new location. For 5 days we didn’t have any electricity but the teachers had to report; we all had survivors’ guilt. I told the staff to come to school and check in and then they could go volunteer and help; to the soup kitchen, take water to Homestead, whatever they wanted to do to aid those impacted. One mother from Dade County came into the front office. As soon as she saw me she burst into tears. She said she didn’t even have a piece of paper with her son’s name on it. I told her to just write down his name for me and he was registered. That was the beginning of the 300 new kids from the devastated area to register at KLS. It was September and I couldn’t get portable classrooms until January. We had classes everywhere! Due to the relocation and the psychological effects of Hurricane Andrew, I thought it was extremely important to welcome our students at the buses with a hug each morning and one before they headed home. They received a sticker that said “My Principal Loves Me”. This is how I became “The Hugging Principal”. After Miami recovered from Andrew, many parents decided to keep their students at KLS, because they were so pleased with the school. When Hurricane Georges slammed into Sugarloaf Key, KLS teachers organized a work crew and made food and rode a school bus to Sugarloaf School to help with the cleanup and to feed the teachers. The tragedy for everyone was 9/11. I was walking between buildings when the maintenance man came and got me. We got back just in time to see the second plane hit. I had to pull myself together and figure out what to do for the students and staff. We made it through that too.
I am very proud of my school and the team I had! I was a very, very lucky person having such wonderful people around me and I loved it very much. I think I received more back from it than I gave
I married Ken St. James and gained two beautiful step daughters.. We have 6 grandchildren, from 20 years old to 3 months. We are going to be attending graduations for a long time as grandparents!
I am most proud of a couple of things: First, my kids and my grandkids. I am also proud that KLS was a place that students wanted to come each day, teachers wanted to teach and parents wanted to volunteer. I am most proud that it was the kind of school a school should be. Those things are more important than any award or trophy. Key Largo School gave me so many wonderful memories and friendships that will last for a lifetime.

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