DADE CITY — All summer long, Jesenia Perez would pass by the construction barriers at Pasco High School, trying to sneak a peek at how the renovations were going.
"You couldn't see anything," said Perez, a junior who works in the school office.
Finally, at registration, the walls came down.
"I walked out there," she said. "I was like, 'Oh, this is so different.'"
Seventh-grader Alexis Alvarez had similar thoughts as she took in the new look of Pasco Middle School just a mile away.
"We came over here quite a bit" during the summer to check out construction, she said. "We were really surprised at how good it looks. … I love the brick."
Over the past three years, both Pasco High and Pasco Middle have undergone major facelifts.
Overlooked as the district built new schools to keep up with growth, the schools finally got the attention of district officials once Penny for Pasco sales tax revenue made it possible to tend to their needs.
The Pasco High effort cost about $19 million and the Pasco Middle project cost about $17 million.
"(The schools) were not neglected, but they certainly needed modernization," said John Petrashek, the school district's director of new construction. "They were just old and outdated."
The schools could not handle new technology and required rewiring, for instance. They did not meet code for people with disabilities.
The schools looked and felt "ghetto," some students said, and their appearance gave the impression that the east side schools had been forgotten.
After months of planning with community input, the overhaul began in 2008.
Some buildings were razed. Each school got new classroom wings; welcoming, spacious and well-lit entryways; upgraded technology; new windows and fresh paint.
At Pasco Middle, a student gathering area replaced a driveway and parking lot. Pasco High's once dusty, nearly grassless courtyard with old studentmade wooden benches gave way to a red-bricked quad with several tables, pavers and planters.
"It looks very unique and beautiful," Pasco High freshman class president Jessica Gamez said. "It's a school to be proud of."
It's also more useful for instruction, said science teacher Don Charlick, who has taught at Pasco High for 20 years.
"Inside the classrooms, it is far more functional than it has ever been," Charlick said.
Career specialist Mignon Edwards, who graduated Pasco High in 1980, said little had changed since she was a student. She was thrilled with the upgrade.
"It's just fabulous," Edwards said. "It's also well-deserved."
Sixth-grade language arts teacher Rebecca Beebe called the renovated Pasco Middle "gorgeous."
"It's historically sympathetic to the town as a whole," Beebe said. "This is where children deserve to go to school, a school like this."
Most important, principal Kim Anderson said, is the new construction allowed her to organize students and teachers into teams.
"They work together. They talk about the kids," she said of the teaching teams. "They become a family."
Petrashek said the two reconstruction projects proved more cost-efficient than revamping the existing structures.
Trying to maintain the old buildings would have been much more expensive, he said, comparing it to keeping up an old car even when there aren't parts available.
Now the schools are like new.
"Those facilities should be good for another 45 to 50 years," Petrashek said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.