The first sign of summer ending is the back to school scurry dreaded by students and welcomed by parents. But back in 1926 when the Sunshine School in Pass-a-Grille opened its doors, local chil- dren were eager to gather inside having outgrown a little brick house on 10th Avenue that had served as their school for several years.
Sunshine School was the first Pinellas County school on the islands and sat on Pass-a-Grille Way between 24th and 23rd streets. Located in what was considered a central location, it soon became a unique teaching facility. The original school had four classrooms, an auditorium, a small office and clinic, restrooms, kitchen and screened porch. The early classes were small enough to have two grades in one room.
“I attended Sunshine School in 1952 and ’53. I am still close to most of my classmates,” says Carol Vogler Bonanno originally from Ohio. “I loved sitting on the patio after lunch while our teacher (and principal) Mrs. McLeod read “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” My family loved the fish broil, but my worst memory is having to eat okra and tomatoes for lunch. But I love them now, and I loved our white graduation dresses and being escorted by a first grader…so memorable.”
The school was defined by its outside tables under a thatched roof where classes were held and its swimming and phys-ed classes on the beach. Even though the school prided itself on its causal vibes, it was dresses for the girls and long pants for the boys with few exceptions.
The school assumed the name, “State of Happiness” with its classrooms known as “Healthville,” “Workville,” “Contentment Town,” and “Clear Conscience City.” On the walls of the auditorium hand-painted murals depicted the classrooms, all helping to create a family and neighborhood atmosphere. The school staff was creative and because everyone knew each other it was easy to feel like one big family.
Barbara Baker Smith (1948-49) “so enjoyed sit- ting outside Sunshine School under a palm roofed hut listening to my teacher and principal Helen McLeod read the classic books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” Barb’s mom was very active in the PTA and always got others together to help the school.
Over the years a library and more classrooms were added and the Parents Club had 41 presidents in the life of Sunshine. An annual fall fish broil was started to raise funds for supplies and books for the struggling school. Capt. Ken Merry oversaw his crew as they grilled fresh mullet on bedsprings over hot button wood coals. When asked where he got the springs, he calmly replied “from a house of ill repute in St. Petersburg–not Pass-a-Grille!” The menu stayed the same: homemade coleslaw, scallop potatoes, corn bread and pies from the community cooks! It soon became an island tradition and is still carried on by differ- ent local schools.
Area growth prompted the county in 1975 to deem the property too costly to maintain and closed the school. That launched a 9-year effort to preserve the property by community leaders, many of whom were alumni, but to no avail. It went down by the wrecking ball in 1984.
Alumni of Sunshine School hold reunions every few years which are always attended by several hundred former students. A special corner in the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum has artifacts along with an original blackboard signed by former students visiting the museum. A photo is taken when the board is full, and then erased for new names. There are two large scrape books filled with class photos and memorabilia spanning its 49 years of educating island children. Many students live and work in the community and visit the museum often, sign the backboard another time, prowl through the scrapbooks and laugh at old times.
The sweet smell of hot buttonwood coals filling the air, lessons under thatched roofs, plays in a pretty auditorium, life long friends who shared those school days are a few experiences remembered forever. A learning center like no other with special teachers who taught well and made learning fun. That was Sunshine School!