From the moment he was named principal of Strawberry Crest High School in January, David Brown's telephone began ringing.
Parents want to know about the curriculum at east Hillsborough's newest high school, and they want to know about Brown himself. Students want to know about the school colors, the nickname and the sports being offered. Mostly, however, they want to share their personal brand of hospitality that characterizes Plant City and its surrounding communities.
"They have been quick to embrace us," said Brown, formerly the principal of Tampa's Leto High. "They want us to succeed. They've been very welcoming.
"I think it's just true of Plant City. The families out here have always been here, and they've always entrusted Hillsborough County with their kids."
Strawberry Crest, located on Gallagher Road east of the McIntosh Road exit on Interstate 4, opens in August with ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders and an apparent mix of excitement and anticipation.
Brown, who helped open Freedom High as an assistant principal, understands the challenges he faces. His tasks include preparing the physical structure for an Aug. 1 move-in date and picking out furniture. He also spends a little time daydreaming about how the football team will erupt from a tunnel and onto the field for its first game against the county's other new high school, Steinbrenner, on Sept. 4.
Interested families can talk about Strawberry Crest's progress during meetings next week with school administrators, department heads and coaches. Brown and his staff meet Monday at the Plant City High auditorium at 6 p.m. and Tuesday at the Durant High auditorium at 6 p.m.
At the meetings, parents will learn Brown is already in the process of organizing a parent-teacher-student association and a booster club. Students already have chosen a school mascot, picking Chargers over Cardinals and Cobras. They designated red, black and silver as the colors, because you couldn't be Strawberry Crest without red as a dominant color.
Brown also has chosen athletic coaches, including former Armwood assistant Todd Donohoe as the head football coach, and teachers. The district rezoned so Strawberry Crest could pull students from Durant, Plant City and Armwood, and Brown conducted a "supplemental transfer process" for teachers from those three schools.
It's clearly a lot of work, but enthusiasm reigns in Brown's voice. The excitement comes from the warm welcome of the community and the genuine thrill he's heard students express. Yes, he says, it's been something of a sell for the kids transferring from the existing high schools. But the middle school kids coming from Tomlin and Turkey Creek Middle Schools are enthused.
"We've had some students say, 'I can't go to Strawberry Crest. My mom, my dad and my grandparents went to Plant City High,'" Brown explained. "But most of the students want to lay their own tracks, make their own mark. They want to be part of something brand new and be on ground level of setting traditions and those rites of passage."
They also want to be part of this area's first International Baccalaureate program. East Hillsborough IB students have traditionally gone to King High in Tampa, and IB stipulations won't allow students currently at King to transfer. Strawberry Crest begins its IB program with 145 ninth-grade slots. They've already been filled. Brown said more than 370 students applied.
The school also will have an agricultural program, a culinary institute and a firefighters academy, only the second in the county.
The school's general enrollment remains open through the school choice program, although parents living outside the district must provide transportation. Brown expects to start with 1,200 students. The school has a capacity of 2,200.
For now, the principal's focus remains on setting the right climate.
"You only get one chance to make that first impression, and we're going to make sure we do it right."
Good luck, Chargers.
That's all I'm saying.