PINELLAS PARK — The hunt for a lunchroom seat begins at 10:50 a.m. every day at Pinellas Park Middle.
The limited seating on the cafeteria floor and added tables on the auditorium stage are snatched up first in the cramped multipurpose space. The overflow crowd heads outside to covered picnic tables. The process repeats three times a day since a fourth lunch period was added this year to accommodate more than 1,200 students.
The cafeteria, built around 1961 for a student body two-thirds of the current size, has been at the top of the school's wish list for years.
Now, Pinellas Park Middle is getting that and more in a $26 million project that will raze and rebuild half the campus and remodel existing buildings. Construction is expected to wrap up by summer 2018.
"People are so excited that finally, finally it's come to Pinellas Park Middle School," said principal Dave Rosenberger.
Pinellas Park Middle is the second of seven major Pinellas County School District construction projects funded by borrowing. The district turned to the bond market last school year to speed up the projects instead of relying on the usual pay-as-you-go process, which takes longer.
Once known as the "ultra modern school in the woods," the campus at 6940 70th Ave. N has green space on its west side, while buildings crowd around the east side. The new design will generally stick to that layout, but not every building will be torn down.
Newer classroom buildings will be freshened up with permanent walls, new carpet, LED lights and fresh coats of paint.
"It's always nice to retain a little bit of history for the school," said Clint Herbic, associate superintendent of operational services. "It gives you more money to spend in more places."
Many of the improvements are designed to address the school's enrollment, which has swelled from 989 in 2012-13 to 1,230 this year.
Designs by Harvard Jolly Architecture show the cafeteria will be expanded to accommodate 200 more students. It will be adjacent to a new two-story classroom building that will be erected after the existing media and art rooms are demolished. The consolidation of those smaller buildings means fewer corners, easier supervision, and enough room for an open courtyard.
Students and school staff will be greeted by a brand-new administration building and media center with more power, greater Internet capacity and plenty of open space.
"We'll just get a lot of technology in there so we're ready for what's coming down the road," Herbic said.
The school also will get double the parking space for its staff, a longer bus loop, a new drainage system and a running track, as Pinellas Park is one the last middle school without one.
District officials plan to phase students and administration in and out of temporary portable buildings as work is being done. Walbridge, the construction management company for the project, tentatively plans to break ground before the end of the school year, Herbic said.
"It's going to have that college campus, that collegiate atmosphere," said Rosenberger. "I think it's going to allow kids to take more pride in their school."
Contact Colleen Wright at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.