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Largo High unveils extreme makeover

LARGO

David Orwig started as a freshman at Largo High School just two years after the 18 brick buildings that made up the campus were built in 1957.

On Saturday, he stood as the grandfather of a freshman in the courtyard of a sleek school he hardly recognized.

"I thought it was nice then," Orwig, 72, said, trailing off.

"It looks like a college campus," his grandson, 14-year-old Joshua Orwig, chimed in.

After two years and a lot of patience from students and teachers operating in a maze of portable classrooms, they started the 2016-17 school year on their brand-new campus. Including furniture and equipment, the redo came out to about $65 million for a high school that went from the most outdated school in the county to what principal Bradley Finkbiner believes is one of the finest in the state.

"This is the most fun I've had so far," Finkbiner said Saturday during Packer Pride Day, an orientation program that allowed students to get familiar with the campus.

The school was bustling with students hugging in the courtyard after a summer apart, lining up to register for parking passes and checking out presentations from student organizations in the 550-person capacity cafeteria. The campus is split into four buildings: two for classrooms; one with the cafeteria, gym and research center; and another for music, drama and mechanical engineering programs.

There is also a baseball, softball and tennis complex still in the works, plus the football stadium, which is getting a fresh layer of stucco and after the season, new turf.

"I didn't expect it to be this big," said 17-year-old Daja Thomas, a senior.

"We're still figuring it out," her mother, April Armstrong, said.

They began a slow trek toward the auditorium for an orientation assembly, looking down at their campus maps like many of the families trying to get their bearings. After one locked door and another wrong turn, they made it into the auditorium, where assistant principal Jonathan Marina was giving a pep talk to incoming freshmen.

"I don't want you stressed," he told them. "I want you happy. I want you educated. I want you working."

He stood in front of a stage that was one of the only parts of campus that hadn't changed. It looked familiar to alumnus Richard Scalise, Class of' '82, who crashed the orientation with two former classmates.

Scalise, 52, played several sports while he was a student. He remembered doing weight training in a shed by the football field for his first three years, then in a small room during his senior year. The weight room now has rows of new benches stacked with barbells and weight plates. It sits off the basketball gym, which has wood floors shiny enough to see your reflection and holds 1,600 people — more than triple the capacity of the old campus gym.

"I would go back (to high school) to lift weights in there," he said.

On the second floor of one of the classroom buildings, the polished concrete hallways were packed with black lockers and smelled of fresh drywall. Physics teacher Allison Bryant was in her room getting it ready for the new year. Bryant said when she started at the school about 20 years ago, there was talk of a five-year plan to get a new campus.

"So I'm like, 'Yes, finally!' " she said, pumping her fists in the air.

By the last year on the old campus, there was chronic flooding on the sidewalks and a dying air-conditioning system with exposed pipes running over the hallways. Bryant's old classroom had most of the equipment her new one does, but a lot of it didn't work The knobs to turn on the gas were finicky at best. A cabinet that sanitized safety goggles was often broken, so she had to rely on wet wipes.

Bryant's new classroom looks more "science-y," in the words of a former student who came by to visit. It has plenty of space for projects and experiments and new, working equipment. All of the classrooms are outfitted with interactive projectors — a favorite for Bryant, who said she gives a lot of presentations.

Rooms for career-oriented classes, too, have been brought up to speed. A food science classroom is home to several ovens, microwaves and refrigerators with plenty of counter space. For those interested in media, there are TV cameras, a green screen and a control room in a spot off the school's research center. There are two huge rooms with fans, safety equipment and wide doorways for welding and automobile technology.

Toward the end of Packer Pride Day, dozens of people were still milling around the campus, taking in views of the courtyard on the outdoor staircases and chatting at picnic tables. Through all the map reading and wrong turns, there was a potent buzz of excitement for school to start in the new buildings.

"It really rejuvenates my teaching career," said history teacher and alumnus Dave Koehler while making his way through the courtyard. "I can see this being a great building for us for years to come."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

Largo High unveils extreme makeover 08/12/16 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2016 10:31am]
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