Coming out of middle school, Tara Nath had mixed feelings about Lakewood High School. She wanted to join the school's prized magnet program. But she had also heard some troubling things. "Kids who don't go there, they have a bad impression of Lakewood," said Nath, 18. "I had a bad impression of Lakewood. I went to a private school, and people said it was bad, that people got shot there." Reality wasn't that scary, she said, but the problems are very real.
It now falls on Bob Vicari — Lakewood's new principal — to lead the school to a new reputation.
A D-rated school for five years, Lakewood will join Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins this fall in coming under more scrutiny from Florida's Department of Education. The schools could get new teachers and $1.5 million in grant money over three years as state officials help resolve persistently weak areas.
Vicari, now principal at Osceola Middle in Seminole, replaces principal Dennis Duda, who is retiring after five years at the school.
Vicari was introduced to Lakewood's faculty last week. His first impressions: "It's a great, strong school, a great staff. They have a lot to offer. I'm following a man who is really well respected and loved."
Still, Vicari acknowledges the battle ahead — and the possible changes to come.
"We've got to make sure our students are on and above grade level. We're going to have to bring in some strong people," he said.
If students are more engaged in class, he believes it trickles out to the halls.
"When kids are happy about their school and excited about going to their school, they're going to look forward to it and you don't have the discipline issues."
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Lakewood High, open since 1967 on the southern tip of the county, is home to every kind of student.
"It has a number of different programs," said associate superintendent Barbara Thornton. "A good traditional program. It's got a great honors program. It's got programs to help students that are struggling."
The Center for Advanced Technologies, a magnet for math, science and computer knowledge, consistently places Lakewood on Newsweek's list of the nation's top high schools. Lakewood has a digital studio and communications program, as well as an environmental science program that uses a 5-acre outdoor classroom with a spring-fed pond.
Certain classes mix regular and advanced students, but not all. Students are so divided, some say Lakewood feels like two different schools.
"I know it offends people," said Shante Shedrick, 17, who isn't in a magnet program. "I mean, it offends both sides."
Lakewood leaders said they have strived to close the gap between the highest and the lowest achievers.
The school has developed half a dozen strategies to help students, including the large numbers of African-American freshmen and sophomores not reading at grade level. More than half of Lakewood's student body is black.
The school also added a journalism program that has drawn both magnet and traditional kids. It prides itself on being objective — reporting on the school, warts and all.
"We're a voice for the voiceless," said Nath, the newspaper's opinions editor. "It helps us to be able to express ourselves."
People who say Lakewood hasn't been trying are wrong, Thornton said.
As of 2009, Lakewood had raised its graduation rate from 66.4 to 85.5 percent — among the highest increases in the county.
"If you look deep into the data, you can see there have been improvements," Thornton said. "Lakewood graduation took a huge leap, and that's not just because they sat back and didn't do anything."
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How do students at Lakewood describe the place?
They're proud to go there, but they welcome help from the state. They say school spirit took a hit recently, but adjusting to new rules is hard.
Hall monitors have cracked down on latecomers to class, students say. Kids used to sneak off campus and hang out at a church. Now, administrators lock the parking gates, keeping out strangers and preventing food and drug smuggling.
"There are a lot of changes that we've experienced," said Corey Givens Jr., an 18-year-old senior and president of his class. "It's been up and down, a roller coaster. We've had our good days and our bad days. My experience at Lakewood has definitely prepared me for the real world."
The school has had 64 arrests through April this school year, from marijuana charges to disorderly conduct to probation violations.
In December, student journalists from the Spartan News Network newspaper published results of a survey of 176 students. More than half said students do drugs and sell drugs on campus. The reporting was eye-opening, Nath said.
Now, the paper is covering more controversial issues at the school, like teen pregnancy.
Vicari, who comes to Lakewood after leading an A-rated school for eight years, believes listening is a big part of success.
"You have to show people you value them and you value their ideas," he said.
That includes students. Vicari planned to hold an open forum with student journalists Monday.
"I'm probably more nervous about that than meeting with the adults," he said. "Kids see through everything, and they give you the real deal."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at (727) 893-8857 or firstname.lastname@example.org.