Hundreds of students, teachers and parents packed the sanctuary of Lutheran Church of the Cross on Thursday to say goodbye to Holly Carlson, who is retiring as director of a private school that grew in repeated bursts over her 35 year tenure.
Some paid tribute in a slick video, talking about the nourishing environment “Mrs. Carlson” had turned into a trademark, articulated on a plaque outside her office that enjoined Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School to “provide a developmentally appropriate environment,” in which “each child is valued for his or her unique traits.”
LCC, fans across a wide age range testified, is the kind of place students later return, sending their own children to the school or even becoming teachers there themselves. Now that Carlson is retiring, she is characteristically low-key and demure about a career arc that includes turning a pre-school into an institution that also accommodates kindergarten through the eighth grade, preparing many of its graduates for an International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School and beyond.
“I could never have written this script,” Carlson told FloridaPolitcs. “I didn’t have aspirations for it to grow like it did.” (The story is personal for Carlson in another way; her daughter, Megan, matriculated through LCC.)
Nestled in the Shore Acres neighborhood in northeast St. Petersburg, LCC has gone to great lengths to blend into its surroundings. Nursery schoolers have trick-or-treated at a nearby nursing center, where elementary students have shared the cookies they baked with elderly residents. When the elementary school got its new campus in 1997, across Chancellor Street NE from the headquarters and sanctuary, some neighbors worried the new building was too close to their homes.
In response, Carlson later told the Tampa Bay Times, the school frosted the bottom half of windows overlooking those properties and redesigned the campus and playground.
Lutheran Church of the Cross started a preschool as a church mission in 1969. Since then, the church and school have maintained a complementary relationship, in part because each institution mostly had to fend for itself financially during the lean expansion years, said lawyer Robert Kapusta, a 25-year board member of the school.
“Legally, the church tells us what to do,” Kapusta said. “But they’ve never done that.” At the same time classes hold weekly chapel services, and images of Jesus are as unremarkable here as the American flag in a public school.
Kapusta credits Carlson’s dedication with leading LCC through more than two decades of steady growth. “Through all that time, Holly was unwavering,” he said. “Her vision and drive helped the school expand.”
Carlson describes herself as more of a talent scout.
“You know what I would say my greatest gift in that regard was?” she pondered. “Surrounding myself with really smart people who knew how to do those kinds of things, people like Rob Kapusta.”
This is sleight-of-hand, of course, appearing to accept a compliment while sliding it to someone else. Then again, Kapusta’s legal specialty is real estate, mergers and acquisitions, exactly the kind of expertise LCC would need.
Carlson, a graduate of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, taught for Pinellas County schools for 11 years, mostly at Walsingham Elementary in Largo. During that time she became a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross. In 1987, she learned about an opening to direct the church’s pre-school.
She interviewed for the job, then received a letter that the position had already been filled.
“I was like, ‘okay, it wasn’t meant to be,’” she recalled. “I was still happy being a teacher.” Then the new director had to move away with her family.
“I thought, ‘oh, I’ll just throw in my resume again.’ That was in 1989, and that’s the year I was hired.”
She cared for 2- to 4-year-olds, 11 classrooms’ worth. “And over the years,” she said, “I felt like what we were doing was the right thing and I didn’t see anyone else doing it as well as I knew we could. So the board and the church agreed that we could begin an elementary school and that’s where that part started.”
LCC added a kindergarten in the early 1990s. The elementary school started in 1993 and progressed in stair-step fashion, aiming to add a grade each year. The new construction helped complete that goal and by the late 1990s, LCC was still operating its pre-school, plus a K-5 elementary school.
LCC always aimed for a low teacher-student ratio. “We had a goal, no more than 16 kids in a class,” said Lynn Piper, a former board president
That wasn’t always possible, especially as enrollment increased. Some things never changed, such as Carlson’s hands-on approach – waving at kids in the parking lot to or from school, a chore for teachers everywhere but not for her – or her memory.
“She will not only remember a student’s name, she’ll know their siblings, she’ll know their parents, she’ll know what they ate for lunch because she has one of those brains that can do that,” said Fiona Potter, who enrolled her two children in LCC not long after moving to the neighborhood from Canada.
A communications consultant, Potter ended up spearheading a contest-winning public speaking program at LCC, teaching thousands of students there, all work that came about with Carlson’s support and encouragement.
What she will remember most about her, she said, is Carlson’s determination to help kids whose families were facing unexpected financial upheaval and could no longer pay tuition. Potter heard the stories when she went on to serve on the school’s board of trustees.
“She never told us the names of the students who ended up in that situation,” Potter said. “She just said, ‘we can’t ask them to leave this school, they’re part of our family.’”
The middle school started in 2002, converting a former bank into classroom space. Another major boost came a decade later, when the bank building and a strip shopping center gave way to the 17,000-square-foot Life Center, which hosts indoor sports, a performance venue and kitchen.
While private schools are pricey by definition, planners always had a specific range in mind, said Alexis Walker, who went from parent to substitute teacher to teacher, and is now the school’s assistant director.
“We wanted to have that community feeling that Catholic schools foster, but with that superior curriculum that some of these schools tout,” Walker said. “And I think we’ve been able to maintain both of those things at a fair price.”
Indeed, standard tuition at LCC tops out at $15,278 for eighth grade. That’s slightly higher than at St. Petersburg Catholic High School ($14,400); but well below current middle school tuitions for Canterbury School of Florida ($22,200), Admiral Farragut Academy (up to $26,100), or Shorecrest Preparatory School ($23,600), all in St. Petersburg.
Trustees took the stage to announce the launch of the Holly Carlson Children of the World Scholarship. This fund will select underserved international students for a kindergarten- through-eighth-grade experience at LCC. The school had already been hosting students who meet that criteria, partially funded through government subsidies, Kapusta said. The scholarship formalizes the program and opens it to donations on a wider scale. Board members kicked in $22,800 to get the scholarship started.
Students presented Carlson with a quilt they made, a vivid eclectic mashup. Peers from each grade contributed squares, which members of a church knitting circle sewed together in yet another gesture of unity.
When it was over, Stephanie Sarsha reflected on the past two years since moving with her husband and two kids from California. The choice to enroll her children in the first and eighth grades at LCC came automatically, she said. Only later has its full significance hit.
“My kids are thriving,” she said. “They’re happy. The community of people here is unlike anything that I’ve experienced, and it’s real.”
Now poised to succeed Carlson as LCC’s director, Walker will draw on her mentor’s “calming presence,” her assurance through any crisis that things work out in the end and that everything will be okay.
“I have learned to be patient from her,” she said, “and to have faith.”
Walker will remember a fun leader, who led the Dog Parade every December, pet the dogs and complimented their costumes.
“She’s the person making hot dogs at the hot dog lunch in a silly apron,” Walker said. “She’s the first person to volunteer to substitute for a preschool classroom if she’s available.”
Her imprint will live on, Piper said, because “Holly Carlson is in the DNA of the school.”
Carlson hasn’t made a lot of plans apart from spending more time with her husband, Tim, in northern Virginia where the couple bought property. She knows this next phase will bring the unaccustomed challenge of not leading a growing and prestigious school, of weaving groups of children and adults together and solving their crises. And that’s okay.
“I will miss –” she said, then paused.“I’ll get teary eyed here. I will miss hugging the kids every day. Because I love the kids so much.”
“And their dogs!” she added cheerily, back in control.
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