Emily Miloro was looking for a challenge when considering high schools.
She found it, she said, at Largo High School, home to Pinellas County's newest International Baccalaureate program. By the start of the third week, Miloro had been assigned essays in every class.
"I can feel the pressure already," she said.
Until this year, Pinellas students who wanted to enroll in IB, a rigorous international diploma program, would have attended highly regarded and competitive programs at Palm Harbor University High in North Pinellas or St. Petersburg High.
Largo High is in the center of the county, and its IB program accepts students zoned for Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park, Seminole and Dixie Hollins high schools.
So far, the school has filled about half of the nearly 100 seats reserved for the program's inaugural freshman class this year. When Pinellas school district officials announced in December that a new IB program would be located at Largo High, some parents doubted it was the right place.
The school was D-rated. It had a dismal graduation rate — the lowest in the county. And there was its derogatory nickname, "Larghetto," as well as disciplinary problems.
Facing these misgivings, Largo High administrators decided to promote the program directly to parents and students. In addition to meeting with parents at local middle schools, they invited students and parents to tour the school, shadow students and attend open house events.
"What you see is more important than what you hear," said Adam Lane, honors option coordinator and assistant principal at Largo High.
That's what happened to parent Julie Coulson when she met Largo High's principal.
"Whatever concerns I had were totally dispelled after meeting these teachers," Coulson said, whose son, Josh Coulson, is a freshman in the new program. "They've provided a lot of opportunities for us to be a part of the program, to meet the teachers, and they've had an open-door policy for us."
Coulson also was reassured when she heard that principal Marjorie Sundstrom had experience with IB, including the program at St. Petersburg High.
However, among parents of prospective IB students, some concerns remain. Dan Tumarkin, whose daughter is in seventh grade at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, said he had wanted his daughter to attend an IB high school, until he learned she would be zoned for Largo High.
"I honestly have no idea what we're going to do," Tumarkin said. "I'm not sure Largo's IB program is the best place for her."
Tumarkin said he has heard positive feedback from one family with a student in Largo's program, but he's still apprehensive. He also wonders if the decision to bring IB to Largo High has created a "brain drain" in Pinellas public schools.
"It seemed like a lot of people wrote off Largo as an option," he said. "These bright kids that would have otherwise gone into the IB program chose to leave Pinellas County's public school system to go to private schools."
Five years ago, Tampa's Robinson High School faced similar concerns as it began its own IB program. Students in South Tampa and Westchase who expected to attend established IB programs at King and Hillsborough high schools were instead slated for Robinson High, long C- and D-rated and reputedly in a bad neighborhood.
Those fears disappeared when parents and students were given the chance to visit Robinson High, principal Laura Zavatkay said.
"Once they came to see what we had to offer, they were all about supporting our family," Zavatkay said.
Once a school becomes an IB program candidate, a consultant works with the school to develop IB courses, review facilities and prepare students for the two-year curriculum, said Alicia D'Urbano, diploma program manager for the international program. Next fall, the school can expect a team of IB educators to review its plan and speak to staff, students and parents.
Because Largo's IB is still in the process of getting approved by the international program, its students are actually in an honors program. Students don't officially enter IB until their junior year of high school, so the program will likely be approved around the time the current freshman class would begin the program, Sundstrom said.
Largo High administrators are optimistic about the program and its future.
"The word's going to get out that we have a very good program here," Sundstrom said. "I think many more will join us."
As for the school's 76.8 percent graduation rate, Lane said it shouldn't have a negative effect on the college-bound IB students, who must apply for the program and follow its rigorous curriculum. But he hopes the presence of IB there will have a positive impact on the rest of the school.
"We're hoping IB is going to boost morale across the campus and give students the motivation to do better," he said.
Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or [email protected]