LARGO — Motorists driving down Eighth Avenue SE likely have seen the message flashing on the marquee at Largo Middle School: "We are Larglorious."
And if they've been a part of the Largo community for a few years, perhaps they have asked themselves, "Is this a play on that nasty word?"
For years, Largo residents have put up with a derogatory term whose origin is a mystery.
Students and teachers at Largo Middle want to stamp out that word forever, said Alisa Gatlin, the principal of the school. They have a new word they feel is a more apt description of their school community: Larglorious.
"Larglorious is about glorifying the students," Gatlin explained.
The term "Larglorious" came about a few months ago, when Carolyn Bystrycki, the eighth-grade office clerk, heard some girls talking about how students at another school offended them.
"I heard a student say she was angry because she was told that she goes to Larghetto Middle,'' Bystrycki said.
"I told her that what she needed to do in a situation like that is show them what she truly is. I told her that she needed to hold her head up high, and say, 'We are Larglorious,' " said Bystrycki, 37.
Gatlin, who arrived at Largo Middle in August 2010, is getting credit from some parents for bringing positive change to the school.
When Angela Williams first found out her daughter, now in seventh grade, was zoned for Largo Middle, she wasn't happy.
"Honest to God, I was scared to death,'' Williams said. "The school had an awful reputation. People at work referred to it as Larghetto Middle because of behavior of children at school."
Now halfway through her second year at the school, her daughter "is benefitting from attending Largo Middle,'' Williams said. "She went to an elementary school where the mix of students was different, and frankly, it's good she now knows that she's not the only black girl who makes straight A's.''
These days "Larglorious'' can be heard echoing through the halls.
Administrators began using it in correspondence going home to families. It's heard frequently over the school intercom system, and the cheerleaders are working on a chant: "Larglorious! Larglorious!'' for future sporting events.
"I don't know who said Larghetto first, but I remember hearing it even when I was a high school student down at Boca Ciega years ago,'' said Bystrycki. "When I think about where Boca Ciega is located — Gulfport. I mean, why would people there call Largo that? How different is Gulfport than Largo?''
In the past several years, Largo Middle has had its challenges. Since 2005, the school has had four principals, and in December 2008, a teacher committed suicide on school property during the winter break.
About 73 percent of the 950 students are on either free or reduced-price lunch.
Gatlin, a former principal at Palm Harbor Middle and Forest Lakes Elementary, said she was aware from the beginning that the school wasn't a perfect place.
"It had been reported that there were safety issues,'' said Gatlin, 51. "My number one goal was safety.''
She also realized an attitude adjustment was in order. "I saw a lack of confidence among the students, and when you don't have a good belief in yourself, you don't see a good future,'' she said.
When she arrived at Largo Middle, she enforced a stronger, no-tolerance approach to fighting and bullying in the hallways. She also "began encouraging the students to be kinder to each other, to open the doors for one another,'' Gatlin said.
She created the Respect and Responsibility Card program, in which students earn extra privileges for exemplary behavior and grades. And Gatlin has also overseen the launch of the AVID program, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. It is a program used in several selected Pinellas County schools aimed at motivating underserved students in the academic middle by raising expectations and providing added support.
Because of the way it encourages independent thinkers and academic success, Gatlin has incorporated some of the AVID curriculum schoolwide. "I think having AVID is also adding to the positive environment,'' she said.
Seventh-grader Alexa McKenna decided to honor the positive changes at her school last month. In music class, the alto saxophonist created a musical composition.
"I wanted (music) that wasn't intense like classical Beethoven. I wrote an upbeat song,'' she said.
And what title did she give it?
"Larglorious,'' she said.
Her band instructor, Robin Benoit, who has been at the school since 1998, was thrilled to receive the new song.
"The term Larghetto has been used to describe both the middle school as well as Largo High for as long as I've been around. When I saw Alexis' song, I thought it was great," Benoit said. "What's crazy is that both 'largo' and 'larghetto' are musical terms. Largo means slow, and larghetto means slower, and it's always bothered me. Calling anything in Largo larghetto has just never made sense.''
Gatlin, too, has been mystified about how the derogatory term became so ingrained.
"Largo is such a charming community and filled with good, kind people,'' she said.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected]