Ninth-grader Carol Maston walked up the steps of the newly constructed Azalea Junior High School. About 400 of her classmates entered the halls, filing in from Jungle Terrace and surrounding neighborhoods. In the months before, Maston and her friends had visited the site to watch as workers installed pillars and tiny windows.
"All of the kids around the neighborhood walked to school," said Maston, now 63 and a long-time member of the staff at Azalea, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week.
She recalls teachers and faculty lining up along entry stairs and hallways, clapping as students entered Azalea for the first time in January 1964, having spent the first half of the school year at Tyrone Middle. Maston also remembers shaking hands with principal Eric A. Whitted, nephew of Albert Whitted, for whom the downtown airport is named. He knew every student's name.
The administration allowed that first student body to pick the colors and the mascot. Maston joined the Black Knights volleyball team and could spot the office staff through glass walls.
As far as she and other Azalea staff are concerned, things have hardly changed.
Over the years, there have been good days and bad. In the 1990s, when racial tension from Dixie Hollins High spilled into Azalea, the school reacted by forming peer groups to calm students. Years later, Azalea students still counsel each other as a way to defuse problems.
"Everyone wants to say that these are the worst kids ever and that they've never seen a worse kid," principal Connie Kolosey said. "Kids are kids. There's good kids and bad kids in every era. Things seem to be rather cyclical."
Maston joined the Navy for two years, married and raised two children, a son and daughter who attended Azalea. As her children grew, she joined Azalea in a volunteer coordinator position and later got a clerical position. She's still there.
"They're just so sweet and so nice," Maston said of the students. "They realize once they leave here that you were right."
The years took their toll, and the school was rebuilt in 2001. Maston got students to help leave symbolic "good luck" notes on the walls and carpets before the original building was razed.
Every year around graduation, the school celebrates and reflects on the success of each class.
"All of these little kids that were running around us, tearing us up, are all of the sudden blooming into young adults," Kolosey said.
The school plans to continue to shape students for years to come. In the fall it will offer its first magnet program, Gateway to Technology Pre-Engineering. For now, Kolosey focuses on student success on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, not just through class performance.
"I go into classes, here recently coming up on the FCAT and talk to the kids about our school grade and how much I needed their help with that," Kolosey said. "They were surprised I would tell them that if every student in our school were to make one year's growth in a year, we would be an A school."
Alumni, faculty, staff and students will gather Saturday to celebrate the 50th anniversary. Students in Azalea's clubs and organizations have been working on booths, displays, slide shows and performances leading up to the event.
"The students are very involved and engaged in that," assistant principal Angela Owens said. "They are ready and excited for the day."
When Azalea was built, Maston felt that it made the neighborhood feel more complete. The community in and out of Azalea draws previous employees, students and faculty back to connect.
"I've seen the old one go up, the old one come down, and this one go up," Maston said. "But I don't think I'll be here when this one comes down."
Amanda Starling can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8862.