Palm Harbor school’s new name keeps young girl’s legacy alive

Palm Harbor Elementary will have a new name when it reopens in August. It will be known as the Elisa Nelson Elementary School to honor the legacy of a little girl whose death has forever changed a community.

LARGO — Elisa Nelson was 10 years old in 1980 when she was kidnapped while riding her bicycle to Palm Harbor Middle School and later murdered.

But that’s not the memory her family, friends and classmates want for a girl whose life means so much to her community.

Instead, they want her to be remembered as a girl with a giving spirit, who was a Girl Scout and enjoyed sports, loved reading and animals, and to dance. They say her death forever changed the Palm Harbor community and brought people together.

A dozen people attended the March 26 Pinellas County School Board meeting to support renaming Palm Harbor Elementary School in honor of Elisa.

The school district closed Palm Harbor Elementary in 2009. In 2018, administration decided to reopen it. The school at 415 15th St. is currently under renovation and scheduled to open in August. It will be the home of the Center for Gifted Students (grades one-five) and the Center for Literacy Innovation (grades one-four).

In February, the district asked the community for suggestions for a name for the repurposed school. From Feb. 11-25, members of the Palm Harbor community submitted nominations online and in writing. In the end, 634 were received with 107 unique suggestions.

The suggestion of Elisa Nelson Elementary won out three-to-one. School Board members agreed with that suggestion voting 7-0 in favor of the new name.

Those who made a nomination were asked to give a rationale. Many of those rationales echoed the words spoken by supporters at the school board meeting.

The Rev. Timothy Nehls recalled the overflow crowd at his church during Elisa’s service.

“Her death brought the community together,” he said.

He said at that time, some wanted to name one of two schools under construction in Elisa’s honor. But that didn’t happen.

Elisa’s brother, Jeff Nelson, thanked the community for its support of his sister’s legacy. He said he didn’t know what happened to change the decision to name a school after Elisa in the 1980s, but suggested it wasn’t the right time.

Naming the elementary school where “she lived and played” is a better fit, he said, especially considering it will house a literacy center. Elisa loved to read.

Elisa’s supporters pointed out that despite her short life Elisa was a “civic leader,” because “her death inspired many in the community to make Palm Harbor a better place in her honor.”

About five years ago, not long after the man convicted of Elisa’s murder was put to death in 2013, her friends and classmates came together to try to change the way she is remembered.

Donna Donati-Waddell, one of Elisa’s classmates, said they wanted to “remember how she lived, not how she died.” The result was the creation of Elisa’s Greatest Wishes, which Waddell said was a great success, thanks to community support.

The charity’s mission is to honor Elisa’s wishes and memories by “helping kids be kids,” according to the website, www.elisagreatestwishes.org. To date about $500,000 has been raised through events such as Elisa’s Greatest Wishes 5K run.

In cooperation with the Pinellas Education Foundation, the money has purchased books for Palm Harbor school libraries, funded scholarships and provided financial support for the Girl Scouts, youth athletics, animal charities and organizations that help children.

Jeff Nelson believes renaming Palm Harbor Elementary as the Elisa Nelson Elementary is the “way it was always meant to be.”

“Her life was a unique narrative that no one else has or will have,” he said. “She united the community. Let’s turn the tragedy into good.”

“I’m so touched this morning,” said School Board member Lisa Cane, who added that her hometown of Palm Harbor was “an incredible place.”

“Heroes are not always measured by what they do in their lifetime, but by their legacy,” she said. “The world is changed one small voice at a time.”

Meet and greet

Hema Adhia will be the principal at Elisa Nelson Elementary School. A meet and greet for students and families will be held Tuesday, April 9, 6-7:30 p.m., in the auditorium at Palm Harbor University High School, 1900 Omaha St.

Representatives from District Application Programs, Exceptional Student Education and the Transportation Department will be on hand to answer questions. Meet the principal and hear her vision for the school, find out how to get involved and sign up for a demonstration classroom tour.

For more information, visit www.pcsb.org/Domain/10370.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.