Florida Keys News
Monday, February 18, 2013
Sugarloaf School shines

If there's one thing that excites Sugarloaf School Principal Harry Russell, it's science -- and the possibilities the subject represents for his students.

"Historically, our science department has been phenomenal," said Russell, a Key West native, who's been in charge of the pre-K-8 school, located at Mile Marker 19, for three years. "The future is here now. That's why it was great to hear President Obama mention STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in his [State of the Union] speech the other night. I think we should do everything we can to ensure the kids in this country are learning as much as they can about these important subjects."

For Russell, this philosophy has already taken root at home.

Two weeks ago, the school took possession of eight Goldenrod robotic arms, and three hydraulic units, the fruit of a $10,000 grant Russell personally wrote for the school. The package also included a Tempest Table, plus all the curriculum, and other items and support required to get the equipment up and running.

A local corporation that wished to remain anonymous matched the grant amount, and the school is well on its way to building a brand-new robotics lab on its grounds.

"Goldenrod is also sending down a trainer to help get us started with the arms," Russell said. "Eventually we'd like to add a wind tunnel in here, a C.S.I. lab, and a windmill out back of the school, and we've been talking about putting together a Middle Keys robotics competition with some of the other schools. We're still in the early stages of development with this, but the sky's the limit."

In another pro-science move, the school in 2000 turned its former library into a computer lab, with plenty of space, natural light and newish equipment.

About half of Sugarloaf's classrooms have Epson smart projectors, and more are projected to arrive in the future.

As a result of the school's muscular science program, the school this year will be one of three in the Keys to be awarded a visit from the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels.

With 583 kids in 10 grade levels, the school is down from its peak of about 1,000 students, some 15 years ago, but it still occupies a strategically important, and somewhat unique, geographical and demographic niche, in Monroe County education.

The school isn't close to any population centers, so students are bussed in from as far south as Big Coppitt Key, and from as far north as Big Pine Key.

Come graduation time, some of these pupils will attend Key West High School, while many of the rest head off to Marathon High. In that sense, the school is preparing students for at least two different secondary education futures.

But despite having a somewhat roomier campus than many other educational institutions, school spirit and academic standards remain strong, and the middle school sports program is a source of pride for Russell, who also serves as the county athletic director.

"We have a very robust middle school athletic program," Russell said. "Football, softball, boys and girls basketball, and girls volleyball. And it's all very disciplined. If you don't make your grades, you don't get to play."

The school's athletic field also serves, by way of an agreement between the county and the district, as a community park, for walkers, joggers, and anyone else looking to get a little exercise. So expansive are the school grounds, that Russell sometimes sees key deer outside his office window, and once in a while, even a bald eagle.

"They're such majestic, beautiful birds," he opined.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on May 11, the school grounds will be the site of the Sugarloaf Fun Fest, which Russell is in the process of organizing.

"It's a fundraiser for the school, but also a chance for us to give a little something back to the community," Russell said. "We're going to have food and drinks, a bounce house for the kids, and live music from Howard Livingston and some other bands. Right now, we're seeking booth vendors."

As far as academics, Sugarloaf has been "A" rated by the Florida Department of Education for the past decade, (except for 2006, when it rated "B"), and boasts the School District's Volunteer of the Year in former Sugarloaf teacher Barbara Lynton. Though retired from the district, Lynton has logged over 1,000 hours of volunteer work at the school in the past year.

Further, Sugarloaf is the No. 2 performing FCAT school in the Keys, (aside from the charter schools), and the No. 4 FCAT, when the charters are taken into consideration.

"Our goal in this department is to be No. 1," Russell said.

The principal has high praise for staff members such as Teacher of the Year Jill Palladino ("She's just phenomenal"), and his Inclusion Teacher of the Year, Anna Maria Steepy. ("A dedicated professional, who is a proven, well-rounded teacher, working with students from many different cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.")

On the athletic side, Russell gave a shout-out to Coach Sean McDonald.

"Sean is an amazing Physical Education coach, and current athletic director at Sugarloaf. He's the spark plug behind organized athletics at the school."

Fourth-grade, National Board Certified Teacher Linda Diaz has taught for two years at Sugarloaf, following a 14-year stint at Glynn Archer Elementary, and five years in district administration.

"I love it here," she said. "We're kind of the countryversion of the Keys, a laid-back version of laid-back. But everybody here is very much focused on what's best for the kids. It's a very positive atmosphere.

Diaz's pupils just finished a "very hands-on" unit on rocks and minerals, and the teacher, who served as a half-time assistant principal last year, also has the Sugarloaf science bug.

"With the robots, I can see a future where we're doing things like building electronic rafts, and things like that," she said. "It's the way of the future. We're very focused on helping the kids build the skills they're going to need in the workplace of the future."

Principal Russell agreed.

"We have high standards and expectations," he said. "We're in good shape as a school. With great teachers, wonderful, involved parents, and sharp students, I feel like the luckiest principal in the world."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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