Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Bethune Elementary Opens despite Contamination Fears

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Bethune Elementary Opens despite Contamination Fears

Article excerpt

Students ran off the bus and searched for their friends. Parents waved goodbye to their children, who ran into the arms of teachers welcoming them back to class.

It was a typical first day of school at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, with few signs of the health debate that swept through the Northwest Jacksonville community this summer.

The school is located within the Brown's Dump area, where the city dumped contaminated incinerator ash from the 1940s through the 1960s. The Duval County School Board allowed parents to transfer their children if they feared Bethune posed a health risk.

County and state health officials have said the school is safe. Still, about 140 students were transferred to eight magnet programs throughout the school system.

Students were offered transfers to Beauclerc, Mandarin Oaks, Norwood, Rufus Payne, Andrew Robinson, Susie Tolbert, Twin Lakes and Carter G. Woodson.

The gravest concern among parents has been about possible lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and at very high levels, seizures and death.

Yesterday, there were only a few reminders of the health debate. Fresh layers of topsoil cover the lawn and the courtyard to lessen the chance of exposure to contaminants.

With enrollment at about 410, the hallways of Bethune Elementary were slightly less crowded yesterday. There were also seven fewer teachers. Five teachers were sent to other schools and two vacancies were not filled because of the transfers, said Ed Pratt-Dannals, a regional superintendent whose district includes Bethune.

Teachers said the loss of students and staff was not noticed. It seemed to them like people were still on vacation or out sick.

Some of the transferred students may return to Bethune. Principal Debra Williams received telephone calls from five parents who want their children back at the school.

More pleas to return are expected once parents realize children are boarding buses starting at 6:30 a.m., about an hour earlier than usual, to get to their new school, teachers said.

The school system is allowing students to transfer in or out of Bethune until Friday. …

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