The inside doors of Trisha Fuchs’ kitchen cabinets are full of elementary school drawings, each of her five children filling their own cabinet with colorful scribbled artwork blurring over the lines.
A section of the China cabinet is also filled with Stewart Elementary School paraphernalia. Copies of the paperback yearbook — some duplicates from the same year — sit on the living room table. A fifth-grade “All About Me” assignment has been completed by at least three of the five children.
When the youngest Fuchs child “graduates” in two years from the elementary school tucked away in northwest Bradenton, it’ll be the first time in 21 years that one of the five Fuchs children hasn’t attended the school, 7905 15th Ave. N.W. From 25-year-old Emily to 9-year-old Claire, the Fuchs family has been a presence at the school longer than most, attending too many Stewart Stars ceremonies, Stewart Olympics and holiday shows to keep track of.
Through changing staff, principals, teachers and even through a few renovations, the Fuchs family has praised the “private-school atmosphere” at the public school as one of the driving factors keeping the family coming back year after year.
Don Fuchs, 60, jokes he’s so old people think he’s picking up his grandchildren at the school. Trisha says the family has two sets of friends. The youngest daughters, Claire and Ella, are often called the wrong name. Collectively, they’re known at “the tall family.”
The tradition started first with Emily, now 25 and working in Tampa at a day-school for adults with disabilities. Then came Christian, the one and only boy. Now 20, Christian is a sophomore at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Kate, 15, is a freshman at Inspiration Academy, a private school. Ella, 12, is in sixth grade and also attends Inspiration Academy. Claire, 9, is in third grade and is the last Fuchs child at Stewart.
At least one child has attended the school every year since Emily was in kindergarten, which makes the 2016-17 academic year the 19th year in a row for the family.
‘We have Stewart’
Twenty-one years ago, Trisha and Don, who works in insurance, moved to Bradenton from New Jersey. Unfamiliar with the area, Trisha wasn’t sure how to find the right school for her kids. She heard good reviews about Stewart and the family bought a home in nearby Azalea Park.
“I figured, we’ll just try it,” she said. “Obviously, I tried it and we’re still here all these years later.”
Calling it a true neighborhood school, Don said unless you live in the area, “you wouldn’t even know it’s there.”
“It’s on the precipice of being a private school,” Christian said.
When she drops her kids off — and is often late to pick them up, the kids say —Trisha said she feels her kids are safe. That’s exactly how she’s supposed to feel. After 19 years, teachers and staff know her family, partially because of the constant presence.
“They say, ‘You’re still here?’” she said.
After Stewart, every Fuchs child but Christian has gone onto a private school, including Kate who did two years at King Middle School before opting to go to private school. In an area with private schools, charters and the ability to choice into the other public schools, the Fuchs family has never been drawn to another school.
“I’m sure there are beautiful, wonderful schools in the county, but we have Stewart,” Trisha said.
At Stewart, all the Fuchs children were taught at the youngest age by the same kindergarten teacher, who has now retired. The four oldest had the same fifth-grade teacher. Three of the five all completed the very same “All About Me” project years apart.
The physical education coach, Rick Morange has left a special mark on the family.
“He has all these characters he does. He thinks he’s so funny,” Christian said. “He really cares.”
It was fifth-grade teacher Brenda Butler who gave Emily her nickname, Emmy Lou. The name stuck so well that it’s what Emily’s students at the adult school call her since it’s printed on her name tag.
The shared experiences, whether it’s teachers, projects or school-wide performances, are part of the draw over the past two decades, family members said. They know what to expect and they feel safe having their children there.
The Fuchs experience isn’t an anomaly, said Joe Hougland, the school principal. Many of the families at Stewart are drawn to the small, cozy feel. With 420 students, the school isn’t as small as Anna Maria Elementary or Myakka Elementary but isn’t as large as a school like Mills Elementary School.
“That’s one of the things I’ll say a vast majority of parents like. We are kind of hidden, we’re not out there on a main road, that’s what contributes to a small feel,” Hougland said.
Stewart is the type of school where teachers come and stay for the long haul. Hougland has also met families where the parents attended Stewart as children and are now sending their children to the school.
“We’re able to keep it really tight knit here,” Hougland said.
‘My crazy family’
Self-admittedly, the Fuchs family struggles to stay on time. Getting kids to Stewart on time was never an issue, but afternoon pick-up could be tough.
“We were always the kids that got left behind,” Christian said, with Kate adding she spent a lot of time in the Stewart office, not because she was in trouble, but because someone forgot to pick her up.
One on early-release Wednesday, back before cell phones were common, Emily remembered being left at school for the whole day.
At one point, Trisha explains, all five students were attending different schools. And none of the kids drove, Don said. Emily was attending State College of Florida, Christian was at Manatee High, Kate was at King Middle, Ella was at Stewart and Claire was at Trinity Children’s Center.
“I’d drop someone off and then fly back home,” Don said. “We were always trying to get someone.”
The family antics led to Christian’s speech contest topic in the fourth grade. He wrote about his crazy family, a topic he forgot until a recent Tuesday night at the family home.
“It was more about how we were all unique but very, very weird,” he said.
Emily is the artistic one, according to the family. Christian always come in third place — he landed third place in that speech contest, Emily reminded him. Kate is the most talkative. Ella is such an exceptional hula hooper that she wasn’t allowed to compete at the school. She was asked to judge instead. Claire is the most shy.
A common trait? Height.
“Everyone knows us because of that,” Kate said.