DOVER — As Dave Brown walks the grounds of his new school, Strawberry Crest High, he can hardly contain his excitement. There's the 1,300 or so students with whom the principal gets to start a new era, the wide-open courtyard and new age library, both of which give the school what he calls a "collegiate" look and that new-building smell that fills the classrooms, gymnasium and auditorium.
Brown's favorite part of the nearly $64 million 200,000-square-foot campus, which sits along Interstate 4 in Dover, measures about 15 feet. It's a small tunnel that runs underneath the bleachers and connects the football field to the boys' locker room.
"It's unique, and I think it fits in with the school and the whole collegiate feel," Brown said.
The Chargers — the school's mascot is a Denver Broncoesque horse — will run out from the tunnel and onto the 50-yard line on Friday nights. Brown hopes to eventually have a mural similar to that of Notre Dame's "Play Like a Champion Today" sign for football players to slap while exiting the locker room.
Strawberry Crest will open its doors for business Tuesday when school starts in Hillsborough County. The school draws its students from Plant City, Durant and Armwood high schools.
After helping open Freedom High School as an assistant principal seven years ago, Brown knows the difficulties teenage students face when forced to switch schools and leave friends behind. But he said it hasn't been a huge problem this time.
"Everybody's just been so positive, from the parents to the students," Brown said. "All the students I've spoken to are very excited and can't wait to get started."
Kayla Stepp, a 16-year-old junior and former Plant City High student whose home is now in Strawberry Crest's district, got to choose her school through the district's choice option. Once she found out Strawberry Crest would have a swim team, Stepp decided to enroll. She's ready to start something new.
"That's the way I look at it — fresh start," Stepp said. "You know high schools (have) a lot of drama. … It's going to be a new experience."
Stepp's mom, Jeanie, was reluctant about the switch at first, but she has warmed up to it. She likes the idea that her daughter will be part of the high school's first graduating class in 2011, as Strawberry Crest won't have seniors this year.
"I kind of wanted her to graduate from Plant City because we are considered Plant Citians, but then we saw the new school going up and got to talking more about it," she said. "I'm excited for her."
Along with the International Baccalaureate program, into which 150 freshmen have been accepted, Strawberry Crest will offer students the opportunity to gain vocational skills through culinary classes, an emergency medical technician and firefighter academy and an agriculture program.
"The beauty is, when the kids leave here, they can go right into the work force and make a really good living," Brown said.
Built on an old strawberry farm in the heart of strawberry country, the school campus includes a field waiting for students to cultivate.
When the berries ripen in the spring, Brown said, the culinary program's industrial kitchen will be the perfect place to make shortcake.
And when the Florida Strawberry Festival comes to Plant City in March, students from Strawberry Crest can enter the Strawberry Queen Pageant, which had been open to students at the local Hillsborough Community College campus and Durant and Plant City high schools. The contest is run by the Plant City Lions Club, one of several local organizations that have embraced the new school, Brown said.
"We're very excited," said Charles Harris, president of the Lions Club. "It's a wonderful looking facility, and I think will do our community well."
It has been a hectic summer for Brown and his staff, but Tuesday the goal is for Strawberry Crest to operate like any other school.
"There will be the whole newness (of it being) the first day ever," Brown said. "And you'll spend five minutes recognizing that. But then we're a high school, and we've got learning to do."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.