East Tampa's Progress Village Makes Arts Magnet School Feel Like A Family Affair

Looking for a public school that offers something a little different? Consider Tampa's Progress Village Middle Magnet School of the Arts. Students choose from sixteen electives including orchestra, business technology, dance and drama in addition to core classes infused with art. This school isn't just song and dance -- it's got heart.

Seventh-grader Kyle Post's day starts at 5 a.m. He needs to catch a 6:07 bus if he's going to make it to school on time -- and like many of his 780 classmates, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Kids from as far as Wimauma, New Tampa, Brandon and Walden Lake make their morning trek to Progress Village Middle Magnet School of the Arts in east Tampa. It's not just the dance, drama, music and visual art programs that attract them -- it's the environment.

"There are so many great teachers that make learning fun," Post says.

As Lead Teacher Meredith Scribner walks along the hallways, she's politely greeted by students in between classes -- and she acknowledges each by his or her first name.

PTSA President Danielle Williams says that kind of mutual respect is what impresses her most about the school.

"The relationship between the teachers and kids is tremendous," she says. "A student could e-mail questions to their teacher in the middle of the night and they'd respond. That speaks volumes to me."

A commitment to excellence, of course, but when the environment at school is this fun teachers don't dread going to work in the morning.

"I love my kids," University of South Florida alumna and dance instructor Paula Oliveira says. "If I'm having a bad day they come in excited and I snap right out of it."

A tour of Progress Village evokes a warm, friendly atmosphere -- full of faculty and staff that truly enjoy their jobs and students who are eager to learn from them.

"I strive for every student to feel special," Principal Michael Miranda says. "We're a family school."

Magnets have seemingly tapped into something powerful that brings creative thinking to the forefront of the classroom experience. There's been an explosion of magnets in recent years -- around 4,000 schools in the U.S. that currently enroll about 2.5 million students from kindergarten through high school, according to Magnet Schools of America.

A Public School Of Distinction

Deborah Barron, lead teacher for Hillsborough County K-12 magnet schools, says that although magnet schools started out to assist areas where the population was less ethnically, culturally and socioeconomically diverse, they now provide parents with a choice -- a public alternative to private schools.

"[Parents] can look at something that really interests their child," she says. "In a case like Progress Village, it's an arts setting, but the academic standard is very high."

Since its conversion to a magnet school 11 years ago, Progress Village has been deemed a School of Distinction by MSA every year since 2006, with the exception of 2010. It has also earned an 'A' grade since 2008, according to the Florida Department of Education.

The accolades haven't come easy, however. Miranda says it took three years for the school to establish a name for itself -- a task spearheaded by Scribner.

"My job is to make sure all the elementary schools know about our programs," she explains. Getting the word out means placing pamphlets in every music store in town, handing out brochures outside of Glazer's Children Museum, holding the annual musical at Blake High School of the Arts -- anything to spark the interest of a potential parent.

At the beginning of every school year, incoming students go through "The Wheel," a rotation of every elective Progress Village offers. Whereas most elective programs operate on a two-week "Wheel," Progress Village condenses its process into 10 days.

"The advantage is they're a semester ahead of any other 6th grader in the county in terms of being presented that curriculum," Scribner says.

Throughout those 10 days they see 12 brass and woodwind instruments demonstrated by band director Robert Chisholm. They're shown the basics of clothing design by Deborah Scourtes. Business technology instructor Steve Pfaffman introduces students to the idea of a paperless, online class. Orchestra instructor Kelly Cottet shares her knowledge of stringed instruments, including classical guitar. Tyler Leavitt brings his experience running Tampa Bay Family Theater with his wife Amy to Progress Village's drama department.

There's a concentration of the arts that permeates all areas of education. Students are encouraged to approach assignments from a more creative angle. Ever sung a report to your teacher? Constructed a city model out of craft supplies and geometric shapes? Made a T-shirt out of your family's lineage? They have at Progress Village.

"Because arts are integrated into every subject, it makes it easier for the kids to understand," Scribner says.

Kids who need to hone their organizational skills find assistance through the AVID college prep program, taught by Andrea Torrens-Tuggle. Tutors are in class nearly every day to work with students, keep them focused and prepare them for the college application process, according to Scribner.

A Welcoming, Happy Place

For Katherine Alfonso, PTSA member and parent of two Progress Village students, it was the academics that drew her family to the school.

"My kids love the leadership programs, the classrooms, the teams, the atmosphere," she says. "As a parent, I love that it's doors open -- I've never been told I'm not welcome."

It was an equally welcoming first year for visual arts teacher William Talenti, who was requested for the position by previous instructor Catherine Battle. Talenti has taught at magnets for the past decade and says the school's reputation is what inclined him to return to middle school for the first time in 10 years.

"Who you work for is very important," he says. "As a teacher in the arts, it's crucial to have somebody who understands you do things differently. You're not following an automated curriculum."

In addition to a supportive administration, Scribner says Progress Village benefits from a host of boosters, parents and a community eager to lend a helping hand based on the nature of the school.

"A lot of things just fall out of the air," she says.

Things like an outdoor wooden stage complete with benches that was donated from Home Depot and the Hillsborough Arts Council providing dance instructors for a series of 30 master classes that will assist students applying for high school dance programs. Then there's DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit charity that allows teachers to post donation requests for classroom projects like vivid campus murals and on-campus art exhibits.

There are many facets that go into keeping the school at an 'A' level, but Scribner believes the minimal faculty turn over at Progress Village is an important contributing factor to its strength.

"It's a really happy place to be," she says, "and when the teachers are happy, the kids are happy."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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