LARGO — High schools love to boast about graduates like Jenny Shelby.
Bright and motivated, she was a salutatorian in the Class of 2009. She will graduate from Yale University this year and is considering whether to accept a spot at Oxford to continue her studies in public health.
In Pinellas County, you might expect Shelby, 22, to be a product of St. Petersburg High or Palm Harbor University High, both ranked among the best schools in the country. But she's a proud graduate of Largo High, a 99-year-old institution with an unflattering nickname, "Larghetto High."
Shelby believes that moniker is unwarranted. She says her success is because of Largo High, not in spite of it.
But the school has produced few graduates like her. Its reputation has been built on a history of strong athletics and poor academics. More than half of its students don't read on grade level. A few years ago, it had one of the county's worst graduation rates.
That's something Pinellas County Schools is trying to change. This year, Largo High can boast a new principal, its first A grade, a budding International Baccalaureate program and promises for a long-awaited new campus.
Principal Brad Finkbiner sets the tone every afternoon, closing school-wide announcements with this: "Largo High, home of learners and leaders."
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Finkbiner contends that Largo High has been misunderstood. His predecessor, Marjorie Sundstrom, improved the graduation rate, focusing on at-risk students, he said. The rate shot up to 81 percent from 67 percent. The A grade reflects that jump.
"We're excited about the direction we're going," he said.
In his first year at the helm, Finkbiner has tried to change the culture. He calls students "scholars." The staff encourages them to take tougher courses. Chronic absences get a phone call home. A stricter dress code is enforced.
Already, many parents are impressed with Finkbiner's leadership.
"I think there's a new energy that maybe hasn't been there in the past," said Michele Adams, whose daughter, Bentley, 15, is a freshman in IB.
One challenge, Finkbiner said, is to get diverse groups to mix. IB students tend to hang out with each other. Students from ExCEL — Largo High's other magnet program, which focuses on leadership — do the same.
Bentley said the school does a good job of promoting unity.
"I am a Largo High scholar, not an IB kid," she said.
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Perhaps the biggest change to Largo High has been the introduction of the IB program — the third in Pinellas — about two years ago.
The decision whittled down long waiting lists at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High and gave a larger number of qualified students a shot at the prestigious, college-level program. But many parents were angry that their IB-bound students would be sent to a then D-rated school.
Rachelle Stockings, of Pinellas Park, was one of them. She considered other schools, but settled on Largo High, in part, because students from Morgan Fitzgerald Middle were going there.
She hasn't been disappointed.
"It's a different culture," she said. "It's not what I expected from Largo High."
Her son, Shane, 16, describes it as the "perfect mix" of athletics and academics. He's heard it called "Larghetto," but says "it's not like that anymore."
Assistant principal Adam Lane said the school should find out before May 1 if it will get official authorization as an IB school.
Parents tend to wait until a program has been in place at least three years before they feel comfortable enrolling their children, Finkbiner said. Not surprisingly, Largo High's IB program has grown slowly. About 50 students enrolled the first year, and about 48 the second.
This year 95 students were invited — there were 100 open seats but not enough eligible applicants — and as of last month more than half had accepted.
It's important that students qualify for the rigorous program, Lane said. "We don't want to set up any of them for failure."
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The IB program has been good for Largo High. But ripple effects have been felt in the system.
Many parents threatened to take their business somewhere else. It's unclear how many did. But Clearwater Central Catholic High School, which has an annual tuition of $10,000, has seen an increase in its enrollment. The private school started an IB program about seven years ago to compete with Palm Harbor University High.
School officials aren't sure if the enrollment increase is because of Largo High or an improving economy. But, "I'll say this for sure, we've had a real big uptick in interest and enrollment in our IB program in the last few years," said Alan Hamacher, Clearwater Central Catholic High's IB coordinator.
St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High also have felt the effects. The pool of qualified applicants went down when feeder schools with high-performing students were moved to Largo's new program.
Prospective IB students are split into two categories, those who meet every qualification and those who meet about 85 percent. The programs must enroll at least 10 percent of the students from the second group.
Susan Farias, IB coordinator at St. Petersburg High, said the school accepted more than 10 percent for the first time after Largo's program opened. That has since leveled off, she said.
"There were some growing pains that first year," she said, noting that the "real test" will be in two years when the first post-Largo cohort graduates.
But, "I think a district this large should be able to support three diploma programs," she said.
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The next boost for Largo High's image could be a new school.
Its campus, like its reputation, is rough. The old brick building, put up on the current site in 1957, doesn't breathe — some classes are too cold, others too hot, students say — and pipes run along the ceilings. Some students attend classes in an old elementary school across the street, walking there through a maze of fences.
Shelby, who arrived in 2005, remembers drama students repairing chairs and sewing up holes in the curtains before performances. There were brown toilet seats and some stalls you just didn't use, she said.
Michael Bessette, the district's head of operations, said a new school is coming, after years on the capital projects list. A new campus should cost about $50 million, he said. A "good portion" of that has been saved. The project could take three years. "We feel it's time and the sooner we do it, the better," Bessette said.
Finkbiner said he'd like to see a new sports complex and a more unified campus.
"We want to take the history of Largo with its brick, and morph it into where it needs to go," he said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.