While Hispanic students comprise 33 percent of enrollment in Hillsborough County Public Schools, at W.G. Pierce Middle School in Town in County, 78 percent of the students are Hispanic and Hispanic Heritage Month is a big deal.
Every September 15 to October 15 the campus actively celebrates, but this year Acting Principal Pablo Gallego wanted to flavor the month with a new twist. Gallego, a native of Spain, designed a community service effort to not only improve the school, but to expand out into the neighborhood as well. “This is your school; this is your neighborhood; if you do not take care of it, nobody will,” Gallego told his students on the morning show.
Saturday September 24, the students responded. Fifty three students, 13 teachers and administrators, a half dozen parents, and one school board member came out to clean up garbage and spruce up the campus with paint. “They were invited to come and do community service hours, and they just kept coming and coming,” Gallego said. Administration had to leave twice to get more paint brushes and bottled water.
“I was in a group of students who were all talking about coming Saturday,” said sixth grader Veronica Flores. “I was surprised at how many students actually came.” Her older sibling, Pierce Alumni Virginia Flores, now a 15-year-old student at Leto, joined her little sister in the event. The girls live about two blocks from the school. Gallego estimated that half of the volunteers lived within walking distance of the school.
Virginia was also earning community service hours towards her diploma. All Hillsborough County students applying for a Bright Futures Scholarship must complete from 30 to 100 hours by the end of their senior year. The girls were part of the crew painting parking lot lines. In addition to the visitor parking lot lines the volunteers repainted the walls in archer green, created a 4-square court, and repainted the school’s locker rooms.
Josephine Stella, an 8th grade student assistant in student affairs, thought it would be a good idea to help. She learned to paint from her father who is a professional carpenter, and is proud of the job she did with her classmates and teachers painting the 700 hall. “I was not only surprised at the amount of people that came, but the amount of work that was accomplished,” Stella said. “It was fun working side-by-side with the teachers outside of the typical classroom setting,” she added.
Adisleydi Alonso, a first year science teacher at Pierce, assisted with the turnout Saturday as the coach of the girls’ basketball team. Alonso, and fellow boy’s coach Dave Ford, planned it as a team-building opportunity, but did let the players know it was optional. Approximately half of each team was able to attend. She said the students were already asking about the next opportunity to volunteer.
School Board member Susan Valdez, a neighborhood resident and former Pierce Middle School student, saw the cars and crowd of volunteers while out running some Saturday errands. “To my surprise, I see children, faculty and staff working on the beautification of their school. The students participating were there because they wanted to be,” she said.
“When I spoke to some of the students, I asked them to show me their Edsby. Without hesitation, they opened up the app on their devices and proudly showed me their grades. They also shared how proud they were of their school,” Valdez added.
The month at Pierce is filled with food, facts, flavor and salsa. Ms. Veronica Gomez-Schmidt, who teaches Spanish at Pierce, sponsors a club where 50 students are learning to salsa dance. Her students will perform at both student assemblies as well as Pierce’s Hispanic Heritage Night October 12 where families and school staff will have their traditional covered-dish dinner and student performances.
Pierce staff also participated in morning show segments during Hispanic Heritage Month, where teachers told powerful, personal stories. Alonso said, “The students can relate to them and it makes them more confident. I shouldn’t be embarrassed about how I got here. My family came here in a boat from Guantanamo, and when I was in 5th grade, I didn’t like to share that story. But now I love to share it. It’s how I got here and it creates as support system for Hispanic students,”
Daniel Westgate, a 7th grade English teacher, is new to Pierce Middle School, but not the area. He attended Webb Middle School and graduated from A.P. Leto High School. Growing up in Town and Country gives him an instant shared experience and connection with Pierce students. “I went to many Quinceañeras before I went to a sweet-16 birthday party,” he said.
Westgate painted the locker rooms with Ford and Alonso. He enjoyed, “getting to know some of the staff who I don’t normally get to see on a regular day, and meeting new students who are not in my classroom on a personal level.” He also got to talk to some 8th graders about plans for high school and college. “I look forward to doing some more.”
“We have great children who want to have a feel of belonging. Activities like this bring them closer,” said Valdez about students taking ownership of the appearance of the school in their community. “For me it is very heartwarming, as I too, am an Archer and have Archer Pride!” she proudly exclaimed.
Pierce just hosted Hispanic Heritage Night and another community service event is planned for Saturday, October 15, this time to paint the faculty parking spaces and to pick up trash in the neighborhood along Hesperides Avenue.