ST. PETERSBURG — Students and parents arrived at Gibbs High School before dawn Thursday and were greeted by a large contingent of teachers, administrators and school district officials, along with the Gibbs marching band, the Gladiators football team and cheerleaders.
The sprawling campus was bedecked in blue-and-gold balloons to mark the first day of classes.
And why not? Gibbs is celebrating its 90th year. But it was also the kind of display that principal Reuben C. Hepburn has turned into a regular feature since he arrived on the scene two years ago with an emphasis on closing the achievement gap and ramping up school spirit.
"I want our students to be able to come to a place where they know they're going to be cared for," Hepburn said, "and I want them to be prideful, I want them to be excited to display that Gladiator brand, that Gladiator logo, no matter where they go."
He said it was important to kick off the year with "something special."
The school opened in 1927 as the county's first secondary school for black students, and it remains a point of community pride for many of St. Petersburg's African American residents.
Over the years it has endured challenges, in 2009 becoming the first Pinellas County high school to receive an F grade from the state. But this year Gibbs moved its grade from a D to a C, and Hepburn told students during Thursday's morning announcements that "we were just 6 percentage points away from a B."
The school will be "chasing" that higher grade all year, he said.
In addition to it's grade, Gibbs' graduation rate has risen as well, to 79.3 percent, which, according to superintendent Mike Grego, is the highest mark in the school's history. And since Hepburn arrived, the school has seen participation rates rise in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers, whose parents attended Gibbs, said the school's transformation has been obvious.
"Mr. Reuben Hepburn came in here with a positive attitude. He came in here with an attitude of can-do, not I cannot do," Flowers said. "He inspired the faculty and staff, who in turn inspired the students. The students began to see that people love them and care about them, and they took their education seriously. You just see a whole different culture here at Gibbs High School."
In addition to the outward signs of new energy, including banners that now dot the campus, Hepburn's influence can be seen in more subtle ways, said Grego, who made Gibbs his first school stop on Pinellas County's first day of classes.
"He quietly focuses on every single student," Grego said, "and if some students are struggling, he makes sure he takes personal interest in them. And that's what it's all about."