PLANT CITY — Afternoons are the toughest.
As temperatures outside climb into the high 80s and students return from lunch, Marshall Middle School teacher Elisa Humphrey sees the heat take its toll on her students. Their eyes glaze over, they start to lose focus and some fight to stay awake.
But the temperatures inside aren't much cooler, making it all the more challenging for them to stay connected.
Come this fall, the historic middle school's perpetually unpredictable temperature extremes will be fodder for history books, thanks to a $4.6 million upgrade this summer that includes a new air-conditioning system. Teachers and administrators at the 900-student school say it will eliminate the wide fluctuations from hot to cold between classrooms.
The variations are so extreme, said Humphrey, that some teachers go exploring between classes, looking for empty rooms that are cool enough — but not too cold — so their students can escape the heat of their regular classrooms.
"It could be really comfortable one day, or the next you can walk into your classroom and the air conditioning is out and you just say to yourself, 'You've got to be kidding,' " said Humphrey, who has taught at Marshall for 18 years.
The upgrade is among dozens of projects across the Hillsborough County School District begun this summer, and the largest one for Plant City's public schools.
Work began the week before classes ended on June 8. In addition to the heating and cooling upgrade, workers are installing overhead lights that are brighter and more energy efficient than the old ones, principal Daphne Blanton said.
"Between their iPods and computers, students are getting enough eyestrain," she said. "This will make it much brighter for them."
Lately, the middle school at Maryland Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard looks more like a construction site than a campus. Workers have ripped out much of the old lighting system and ductwork. Dirt is piled up where trenches were dug for new piping. Debris is piled up outside the main entrance.
The worry on minds now, said Blanton, is whether workers will finish on time. Tropical Storm Debby caused a brief stoppage, but the project remains on schedule, she said.
"It's almost a seven-month job and they have to do it in three months," Blanton said.
Blanton isn't sure when the district last replaced the air-conditioning system. Marshall, named for Edward J. Marshall, the first African-American to serve as a school trustee in Plant City, is one of the city's oldest schools.
In the 1920s, Marshall persuaded city officials to donate land to the district to build a school for the predominantly black neighborhood east of downtown, according to the school's website. The property underwent several revisions as its mission evolved over the years — as an elementary school, a K-12 school and a high school in the 1950s.
The school was called the Midway Academy, and for a brief time, its upper grades were referred to collectively as the Plant City Negro Junior High and High School. Marshall became a middle school in 1995.
The school's numerous incarnations are noticeable when strolling the halls.
"The students sometimes ask why the walls are brick in some places. I tell them, 'That used to be outside of the building,' " Blanton said.
Because of the construction, parents are urged to go to Tomlin Middle School at Baker and Woodrow Wilson streets to register their students for classes at Marshall.
Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or [email protected]