NEW PORT RICHEY — They stared at the restroom walls with a mixture of dismay and disgust.
Paint had chipped away in places. Pen marks ran along stretches. Spiderwebs dangled from the corners.
Armed with brushes, rollers and gallons of off-white paint, about three dozen Gulf High students and teachers spent Monday morning refurbishing the school's main hallway restrooms. The effort came as the first step in an initiative to spruce up the school's image, too.
"We're working to touch it up, starting with the paint," explained junior Casey Pereira.
Over time, Gulf High has come to suffer a poor reputation.
"Everyone thinks it's like ghetto," senior Liz Mathieson said.
Receiving a D grade from the state in 2007 didn't help matters, added sophomore class sponsor Kelly Davey: "It was like we were the red-headed stepchild of the county."
Things have started to turn around. Gulf earned a C from the state in 2008, missing a B by just four points. And it got a new principal, Steve Knobl, who made school pride a top priority.
Paintbrush-wielding students and teachers welcomed the mood shift.
"I think with Mr. Knobl here there are going to be a lot of changes, and it's going to be a real good year," junior Vanessa Bowers said. "It's time for a change."
Added junior class co-sponsor Angela Cotney, "More than any other year, I want to come back."
Cotney said she got the sense that kids will have a greater voice in the goings-on at Gulf High. As a result, Davey said, the students should have more opportunities to participate in events, giving them a greater sense of ownership and pride.
"The kids, I think, are dying for the opportunities," Davey said.
And the starting point came with a fresh coat of paint.
Heavy fumes permeated the school corridors early Monday as the team of student leaders — mostly student council and International Baccalaureate kids — rolled and brushed and spattered the restroom walls. Most wore old T-shirts and pants for the occasion, which quickly became speckled (or worse) with the paint.
Lacking ladders, they climbed countertops and commodes to reach the highest points. It wasn't easy work, and the students didn't have to be there. But they said they wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's something we can do for our school. They've done so much for us," said junior Rhea Forbes.
"I really do want to make the school better," added senior Matthew Ong. "It's a benefit for the whole community."
After finishing the student restrooms, the teams tackled the staff restrooms. Today they're coming back for campus litter patrol.
Joe Wolf, an active dad at the school, said he was impressed by the teens' hard work and desire to improve their school.
"They're accomplishing something," said Wolf, who took the day off from work to volunteer. "They're not in front of the TV. They're taking pride in what they're doing. … The fact that they're here and they don't have to be says it all."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.