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All Eyes on East Side

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By Christina Ottersbach

On Saturday, August 6, dance music and the smell of BBQ filled the air on Roper Road in East Brooksville as Eastside Elementary was holding their second Back to School event for students and their families. Eastside’s first event, Popsicles with the Principle, included a three-stop bus excursion with the staff greeting families all around their zoned community with treats and giveaways.

With practically every staff member and community partner on deck to greet them all, both events have been nothing short of amazing. The enthusiasm and excitement could be felt among every person in attendance.

Upon entering the premises, Christ Lutheran Church’s Pastor Paul Meseke and volunteers greeted every family with a sidewalk filled with gently used children’s clothing free for the taking. On the back courtyard and PE field, various other community partners such as the Hernando County Sheriff’s Department, the United Way, Ridge Manor Nutrition, the United Way, Hernando’s Parent Academy, and Hillside Community Baptist Church, who provided all the food and has been a community partner of Eastside for 20 years.

Teachers weigh in

To have so many teachers willingly show up for events unpaid before the school year even starts, one can’t help but wonder what the big deal is. Several teachers were interviewed to get their take on their concerns about the public school system, both looking back on years prior and looking forward, and how Eastside Elementary separates itself from the norm.

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Makerspace teacher Cathy Ferraro and art teacher Roni Smith simply pointed to the man on the microphone – Principal Mike Lastra. As Cathy smiles at all those dancing and playing in the courtyard, she explains, “I think this says it all, he (Mike Lastra) is involved in our community. Once you get families involved, then the negative behaviors are going to lessen because we got mom and dad backing us out.” Cathy’s daughter, like many students, would not have been able to point out who the principal was because they were not involved with the students. Mrs. Ferraro stated, “My daughter still remembers Mr. Lastra from when he was the Assistant Principal four years ago. He made an impact. That man has been making an impact on our school like no one has ever seen.”

Art Teacher Roni Smith is extremely excited to be teaching art this year. She stated, “It’s going to be an absolute turnaround year this year. It’s going to be awesome. We’re going to get specials back, which we haven’t had in years. The fact that we’re going to have specials back is going to make a huge difference.”

Due to teacher shortages, both Ferraro and Smith were pulled from teaching their specialist classes to fill in vacancies in general education classrooms. The only special made available to students was Physical Education. In less than 2 months, Eastside has reduced their number of teacher vacancies from 13 to 2, with an opening in kindergarten and third grade. Although Eastside has fewer teacher vacancies, they will not be immune to other county-wide shortages, such as bus drivers or substitutes. When asked about how they feel about dealing with these problems again this school year, Ferraro and Smith show little concern and are thrilled about coming back to work. “Mr. Lastra’s passion is contagious,” Ferraro says. “In fact, it is so contagious, I feel it, they feel it. I don’t dread coming into work anymore.”

ESE Teacher, Nicole White, was also optimistic about the upcoming school year. “This year will be different because “It starts with the principal; it starts with leadership.” White, who started teaching in Florida during the pandemic stated, “There were a lot of vacancies last year and a lot of changes. It’s hard to rally and keep momentum going when a lot of changes are happening.” Despite the kindergarten vacancy, White doesn’t seem phased at all. “It’s doable, it’s not ideal. But I think we have a great Kindergarten team and energy that is coming down straight from the top, so we’re not all that concerned.”

Parents weigh in

Vikki Crabtree is a well-known parent volunteer at Eastside. Her son, Brik, is going into fifth grade. When she reflects on last year she stated, “I didn’t feel invited.” When asked what is different about this year, she just points towards Lastra. “It’s the energy and the administration.”

The Bloodworth family is a family of seven, with 3 children attending Eastside and 2 children attending D.S. Parrott Middle School. What makes this year different from last year? “The principal actually wants the parents involved, “Mrs. Bloodworth explains. “The teachers are more excited, so the kids are going to be more excited.”

School Board members weigh in

School board member Susan Duval of district five was present for the event and had much to say about the new administration. Duval has been a school board member for eight years and has been involved with the district as a parent, teacher, and administrator since 1969.

Regarding last school year at Eastside Duval said, “There didn’t appear to be a sense of urgency on getting this school together and moving it forward. I think this year, you can see the difference and hear the difference.” Duval praised the new administration team, “Mike Lastra is a ball of fire. He’s not going to settle for anything less than the best for this school, his teachers – same for the new Assistant Principal Eric Schwartz.”

Susan Duval also sees the changes in the families. “I think the families are more involved. This is a great event to get those parents involved but Mike is not going to let this be a one and done event. He’s not going to let it stop. He’s going to come up with new and amazing things for the kids and the community.” She added, “School leadership can have a huge impact on how well the school can do. It does take everybody working together and Mike has the ability to make that happen.”

Principal Mike Lastra weighs in

Principal Mike Lastra started at Eastside Elementary School 4 years ago as assistant principal before transferring over to Brooksville Elementary as principal. This is his first year as principal at Eastside. Lastra reassures everyone he talks to that the hype is not just excitement about starting school. “I’m telling you right now, we’re going to be on fire all year long.” But he doesn’t take credit for any of the excitement that has been taking place – he attributes that energy to his staff and families. “This is our first year at Eastside and we are so excited for the amount of energy you guys are bringing towards this school.” He added, “You guys are our heroes – It’s all about leveling up, taking our school to the next level ASAP – it’s not a four-year-plan. We’re talking about right now.”

Eastside Elementary School unveiled their plans to hold monthly family nights in their media center in addition to other family night events. “This the first of many events that we’re going to do and it’s all about getting you guys involved. It’s purposeful. It’s about getting you guys back into the school, to know the administration and to know the teachers because to turn this school around, it’s going to take every single one of us; and that’s parents, students, community partners, and even school board members.”

Dell O Barnes from Hernando’s Parent Academy announced the school’s plans to hold their first All-Pro Dad’s meeting in September. They made sure to mention that the event is not limited to fathers, but to everyone who fills that role, including single mothers. Mr. Lastra explained, “We are going to one of the only schools in Hernando with the All-Pro Dad’s designation.”

Community partners weigh in

Angie Walasek from the United Way of Hernando County was honored to present Eastside with their very own Leave-A-Book Library. She stated that the purpose of the United Way is to “Fight for the health, education and financial stability of everyone in our community.” Mr. Lastra is a big proponent of developing a love of learning and literacy among students, which will be key to getting them back on the right track. Mr. Lastra also revealed he recently hired a new media specialist and purchased new furniture for their media center and is looking forward to having families filling their library again.

The rest of the community sponsors were all smiles as well! D.S. Parrott Middle School Cheerleaders were present during the entire event to help welcome the sponsors and their generous raffles and donations. The Hernando Computer Club raffled off refurbished Dell desktops, already loaded with software, to five lucky participants. Scooters and helmets were also raffled off to several lucky winners. The Hernando County Sheriff’s Department had a tent stocked with backpacks that students could fill up with whatever supplies they needed.

In between raffles and speeches, teachers were chatting with new and old students, playing basketball, and dancing. Dell O Barnes from the Parent Academy volunteered to DJ the event. You would not have expected such a teacher turnout after the burnout most educators faced by the end of May. Mike Lastra’s fire not only reignited the passion to learn, but lit the way for these teachers to look back and remember why they started teaching to begin with.

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