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Principal Discusses School's Partnership With Navy Crew

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Earlier this year the Duval County, Fla., school system presented the U.S.S. Gettysburg with its "Pathfinder'' award for outstanding school partnership.

The crew of the guided-missile cruiser adopted Jacksonville Beach Elementary School last year, under the leadership of Signalman Senior Chief Warren Varnadoe, whose son is a 2nd grader at the school.

Last fall, the partnership became a long-distance one when the ship was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea for six months.

Pamela Rogers, the principal of Jacksonville Beach Elementary, spoke with Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld about the school-Navy collaboration.

How did the partnership get started?

We were talking with the parents, and [Mr. Varnadoe] wanted to get involved in something. I expressed to him that we needed playground equipment, and I was telling him how expensive it was.

He said, "Well, if you can just get the material, we've got a bunch of men out at the base that would love to help you ... put it together. I know a little bit about architecture, and I can probably get it done for you.'' So we decided that would be the way to go.

How long did it take to complete the playground?

It really only took about a week after we got the material.

Besides doing that, they've done a lot of other things around the school. They've worked as tutors in classrooms, they've helped with [physical education].

What happened when the crew was deployed?

When they were out to sea, we were all pen pals with them and sent them "goody'' boxes, and they sent us a lot of letters from every port they stopped in, and pictures, and all kinds of things.

When they came home, we made a big quilt for them. Each class had a section ... that they drew big pictures on and signed their names to it. ... We had another big sheet that one of our classrooms had drawn "Welcome Home'' on.

Was it difficult after establishing this partnership to have the crew leave for six months?

Yes, it was. But we did keep in pretty good touch. We had one or two men assigned to each classroom in the school, and when they were gone they wrote to their specific pen pals.

We had a lot of communication back and forth, so that was good, but we did miss them. But now that they're back they've come out in full force again.

How do the teachers feel about the partnership?

They love [the Navy partners], because they're such good male influences on our children. They don't have a lot of males in elementary education, ... [so] we really look forward to having more influence from them here.

Do you have any other partnerships with area organizations?

We do, but none half as active as the U.S.S. Gettysburg. We have them with stores and [with a bank], ... but they don't really give as much of their time as the military does, and that's really what we need.

It's time to spend individually with children who are having a problem or are in a crisis at home and need a friend, or someone to ask them about their homework. Things like that really make them feel they're important.

What has made the partnership with the Gettysburg crew more successful than the others?

I think when they actually came out to the school, they saw the need. They saw how the kids just hung on them and loved them, and I don't think they really knew they would be needed that much or that they would be liked that much.

They were kind of overwhelmed; kids would just depend on them to come. When they were missed or something, they would call them.

What do you think the children are gaining from this experience?

Well, they're getting such positive role models. They see men who are in uniform and who have good jobs and who care about the country, and ... they're interested in their education.

They just portray that "It's possible that I can do this, I sometimes had trouble in school, but I've got a good job now and stayed in school, and got a good education, and everything wasn't perfect in my house either.''

Is there anything in particular the students found interesting about the crew or their careers?

They took us on a tour of the U.S.S. Gettysburg, and [the students] were very interested in the ship and its capabilities. ... They asked very intricate questions. The men on the ship thought they would be more interested in what was being served for lunch!

They really wanted to know "How do these computers work?'' and "Gee, it shows Asia on here.''

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