SEFFNER — Armwood High School teamed with Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins to host a Seffner Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting last week in an effort to change the school's perception and engage community partners.
Armwood, which has one of the district's highest rates of economically disadvantaged students (78 percent) and the district's lowest graduation rate (64.5 percent in 2015), has faced several challenges over the years.
The school stands out as an athletic powerhouse — its football team is a perennial state contender — but its reputation as an academic institution suffers.
Third-year principal Joe Castelli has embraced the motto, "every student, every day, no excuses." He credits his staff, wonderful teachers and amazing students for vast improvements in the school.
Student leaders from various programs and clubs reflected the improvements, making positive impressions on chamber members and clearly signaling that Armwood possesses positive stories. Some members said the presentations and greetings proved to be a pleasant surprise.
Junior Jacquez Lilite, a star player on the football team, maintains a 3.5 grade-point average, serves in the National Honor Society and handles vice president duties for a new peer mentoring program aimed at helping "at risk" underclassman.
"We are really great athletes, that's the truth, but you can't go anywhere without good grades — your grades are what sets you apart," said Jacquez, who has received nine scholarship offers from schools such as Iowa State and Georgetown.
The Armwood culinary arts academy, led by teachers Paul Shaffer and Eddie Irlanda, catered the lunch, relying on the school's fully-functional professional kitchen to teach the students.
The culinary students operate the "Armwood Bistro," which offers more refined entrees than the normal cafeteria and features three flat-screen televisions.
"Students earn points to dine in the bistro based on their grades" Irlanda said. "It is a great incentive for the kids to strive for.
"We are teaching real-world skills for students that may not have the desire to go to college but will be active, working participants in the community."
Sophomore Nicole Martin, president of the school's Key Club, represented "Girl Talk" at the luncheon, a group she described as a sisterhood.
"(It's) … to support one another with anything they are going through, be it relationships, family, grades, whatever," Nicole said.
School officials also shared information about its Collegiate Academy, one of only three in the district. Academy students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree, helping them save time and money in their pursuit of a four-year degree.
"This basically shaves one to two years off of college tuition; it is a huge, money-saving factor for parents," Eakins said.
Lori Nadglowski, a certified financial planner with Laurel Wealth Management, crafted the idea to showcase the school to her fellow chamber members. Her son Devin is enrolled in the collegiate academy and will finish his first year with nine college credits.
"I used to say there is no way my son is going to Armwood based on its reputation and from researching the rankings online," said Nadglowski, now vice president of the school's PTA. "As a business owner I saw the opportunity to get involved and partner with the school. It is really a hidden gem in the Hillsborough County School System."
Annie Gibbs, a junior in the Collegiate Academy, is another believer in Armwood. Zoned for Bloomingdale High School, she made the decision to come here to take advantage of the fast-track college program. She also serves as vice president of the Key Club, which focuses on charitable work in the community such as Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, Relay For Life, Cards for Troops and more.
"I love Armwood and am so glad I came here as a freshman," Annie said. "I have made awesome friends for life here."
Contact Karla Gibson at [email protected]