Former and current Key Largo School administrators gather following the 50th celebration ceremony on Jan. 19. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Former and current administrators, teachers and students peered at yearbooks and past pictures inside the Key Largo School library on Jan. 19. Fifty years ago to the day, the school opened its doors to a new era of learning in the Upper Keys. 

Despite challenges that delayed the school’s opening, a community would come together to ensure students had a place to go and learn. On Jan. 19, 1972, the elementary school was completed. Fifty years later, those who shaped the lives of young students back then, or are doing so today, gathered on the school lawn during a picturesque day for a celebration. 

With the school’s Safety Patrol leading the pledge, students rose to sing the national anthem led by instructor Susan Bazin. Principal Darren Pais, who started his career at KLS in 1993, led off by lauding the Key Largo School’s ability to provide high-quality education to students all while being a cornerstone to a great community. 

“We have proudly been supported by our cherished family and friends for 50 years. For our celebration today we are glad to see our past and present KLS family members to join in this landmark celebration,” Pais said. “The establishment of high expectations from previous KLS teachers, staff, administrators and district staff cannot be overlooked. We are able to commemorate our rich past today because of traditions of excellence created by them.”

Ed Caputo, Key Largo School’s first principal, speaks during the 50th celebration ceremony. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Joining the 50th celebration was Key Largo Elementary School’s first principal, Ed Caputo. He recalled the challenges in getting the school started following a failed referendum in 1970. Not deterred by the outcome, then-superintendent “Bookie” Henriquez borrowed money to build Key Largo School and Stanley Switlik School. 

“He took a chance. He’s a courageous man,” Caputo said. “He negotiated the donation of the property upon which this school sits.” 

Key Largo School originally was scheduled to open its doors to students in 1971. Delays however, pushed administrators to formulate an alternate plan as the school construction continued. In the end, businesses in the Key Largo community stepped up to house students from different grade levels from August until January when the new building was ready. 

Frankie St. James, former KLS teacher and principal, said the building of relationships helped establish Key Largo School. The Civic, Lions Club, Elks Club and churches including Burton Memorial Methodist Church, San Pedro Catholic Church and First Baptist in Key Largo all housed students. School board member Sue Woltanski said those same organizations and the community continue to provide support for the school and children.

“I’m super proud to be part of this community that cares so much about its children and public school,” she said. 

In 2008, the original elementary school building was demolished and a new building that would fit all grades K-8 was constructed. The old middle school building now accommodates electives.

Caputo also looked back to 1968, when some 33,000 teachers throughout the state resigned because “schools were so bad.” They were particularly bad in Monroe County, he said. Gov. Reubin Askew encouraged the legislature to pass 104 laws to reform schools. Caputo said many of those put into law are reflected in Key Largo School. He also credited the work of Henriquez, who implemented the laws.

“He passed money down to the schools from the district office,” Caputo said. “He taught his principals when they received the money to pass it down to the teachers. And that’s what we did. We put creativity and freedom into teaching, and there’s a relationship between the two.” 

Key Largo School alum and nurse Priscilla Johnson speaks during the ceremony. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Caputo said it helped create floating planets in the first grade classroom to the “Wild Kingdom,” which saw students becoming proficient at caring for animals. 

Key Largo School was designated a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence under Principal St. James in 1977. The school was selected for a national Blue Ribbon school of excellence and received special honors as a high performing technology school. 

“I remember this was 1997. There wasn’t a lot of technology around,” said St. James. 

The school was later selected as one of four schools to participate in the BellSouth Power to Learn Program. They received $250,000 and participated in a one-and-a-half year study of the school. George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, sent a video team to the school to produce an education video for his foundation’s website. 

“You can still find that video on his website,” St. James said. 

Among the alumni who spoke was Priscilla Johnson, who started kindergarten in 1985. She recalls Ms. Brenda teaching her the ABCs using Mr. M with the munchy mouth, Mr. T with his tall teeth and Mr. S with his super socks. Johnson also remembers Safety Patrol in fifth grade. Serving in the military, she returned as a teacher where she worked alongside her first-grade teacher. She currently works as a nurse. She’s also a KLS parent. 

“As a parent here at this school, I have a different level of faith, trust and hope in what you’re capable of,” she said. “I have the faith that the choices that are made are with my children’s best interest in mind. I have trust that they will be safe, loved and nurtured. And I have hope they can be whatever they desire.” 

An aerial view of the Key Largo School grounds. CONTRIBUTED

Also in attendance for the celebration was Superintendent Theresa Axford. During her remarks, Axford said it takes a community to raise its children. The school is a bedrock of the community. 

“Key Largo has been a community school from the very beginning when a community pitched in to house students before school was actually ready. That long tradition has continued thanks to wonderful parents, teachers and administrators who continued that tradition. It’s a beautiful time to reflect on accomplishments and celebrate a golden moment.” 

Throughout the ceremony, students from various grades read poems that correlated with the school’s 50th anniversary. Students also provided Pais envelopes with items for their school’s time capsule. 

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.