Teachers and administrators know well that no school year is alike. Even in more predictable times than these past few years, change—be it in a single classroom or across the school—is inevitable and at times seemingly inexplicable. Unforeseen events, new technologies, even trends on TikTok—they can all create unique, unexpected, and at times immense challenges.
This has certainly been the case at Cranberry Elementary School, a Title I school in North Port. In August, with life seeming to return to something that felt more like normal, Cranberry opened to great fanfare. Thanks to an immersive grant funded by the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, students were treated to a weeklong, inquiry-based, immersive learning adventure.
The Monday after school began, students learned their mascot, a cougar named Cooper, was missing, and for the rest of the week, across grade levels and subjects, they deciphered clues he’d “sent” from his travels across America. As they determined where he’d been and when he would come back, they learned geography, science, math, English, and so much more. The experience was a success—a relief after three chaotic years of the pandemic. “It was so great,” said Marissa Pinto, home school liaison at Cranberry. “Everyone was so into it. It was such a great morale boost.”
But all that excitement and inspiration vanished at the end of September, after Hurricane Ian blew ashore. The hurricane left a trail of destruction that damaged the school and disrupted the lives of so many at Cranberry and across the county. Many families lost everything they had.
The school, especially many kindergarten classes, experienced extensive water damage that slowly revealed itself to be much worse than originally thought. Crews repaired rooms, but even after four weeks had passed, the school wasn’t completely ready, and some kindergarten classes would need to be combined.
Unlike most of the schools across South Sarasota County, Cranberry needed one extra day before students could return, allowing teachers to get their classrooms in order. Karen Cramer, a fourth-grade teacher who has been at Cranberry since it opened in 2003, was grateful for that time. Classrooms become a second home for students, for some the most stable place they know. To see it in shambles, Cramer knew, would’ve been too much for so many youngsters.
The day her students returned, Cramer gave each one a hug and set to work. Her students, she found, craved a return to normalcy. They wanted to learn.
Cramer and her colleagues, dealing with their own stresses as they had during Covid, focused on what mattered most: their students. As Alison Rini, the assistant principal at Cranberry, said of the teachers, “They just know how important they are in our kids’ lives.”
Cramer leads a club called Reading Rocks, where students read books and discuss them in smaller reading circles, where they’re more apt to speak. She needed to update her selections, many of which were outdated, damaged, or both. As her students returned, she submitted a grant request through the Education Foundation’s EducateSRQ Classroom Grant program. The grant was almost immediately funded by the Education Foundation and DonorsChoose, and soon Cramer had new books to instill in her students a lifelong love of reading.
Across South Sarasota County, EducateSRQ Classroom Grants helped teachers replenish lost supplies and meet the unique needs of their students during another incredibly stressful time.
As happened during the height of the pandemic, teachers and administrators at Cranberry had to focus on the essentials. Marissa Pinto began to visit the homes of students most affected by the storm to see what students and families needed and how she could help.
If students and families were hurting, so were teachers and staff at Cranberry, and immediately after the storm, Alison Rini reached out to her colleagues to see who needed what. She coordinated resources like generators to help make life a little easier. When it was safe to return to the school, she organized a weeklong day camp for the children of Cranberry teachers and staff.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, the Education Foundation delivered a $4,000 hurricane relief check to Cranberry. Rini described it as “mind blowing.” The money allowed Cranberry to address specific challenges as they arose. And even in late November, the need was still so great. As Rini said, “Like our damage [at Cranberry] was a slow reveal,” so were the struggles many teachers and support staff faced. The administrative team gave funds to six displaced teachers, none of whom asked for it nor, Rini noted, would have. But they needed it.
With these funds, Marissa Pinto also restocked the almost empty bins of shoes and clothing they keep for students so they can focus on learning. She was able to quickly meet the needs of students as they presented themselves.
Support came from everywhere. Schools outside of Florida donated school uniforms. All Faiths Food Bank donated turkeys at Thanksgiving. South Side Elementary School adopted families and bought them supplies. Ahead of the holidays, Jessica Seltzer, the instructional facilitator at Cranberry, organized Nine Days of Christmas, with fun activities and cheer each day leading up to the break. Fruitville Elementary School supported the 85 students on Cranberry’s giving tree. These and so many other efforts made such a difference in the lives of the Cranberry Elementary family.
“It’s been,” Pinto said, “a collective effort from a lot of people.”
Today at Cranberry, routine has begun to return, but many students, their families, and their teachers and support staff continue to struggle with the effects of the storm and with the lingering effects of the pandemic. Of the students, Pinto said, “They’re better. They’re not perfect. We still have families displaced. We’re seeing behaviors from kids whose families went through this.”
The recovery process for some will last for years, but teachers like Karen Cramer and social workers like Marissa Pinto and administrators like Alison Rini and Jessica Seltzer will be there for them and for each other every step of the way. They know change and upheaval are inevitable, but even in the direst of times, there is hope. They have seen the power of a community uniting to support the next generation.