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Campus embraces change

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Bolstered by innovative ideas, inventive technology and high praise, SPJC's Seminole campus enters its second year on the cutting edge.

Jim Olliver is like a kid on Christmas morning, ready to show off his new toys.

Olliver, the provost of St. Petersburg Junior College's Seminole campus, escorted a visitor into a classroom one afternoon last week. Underneath the word "welcome," the visitor's name was projected from a laptop computer onto a large, white screen called a smartboard.

"If you are going to be the campus that leverages technology, you might as well use it," Olliver said cheerfully.

Since it opened last fall, the Seminole campus has gone out of its way to impress students and visitors with a futuristic feel, highlighted by its interactive and online classes. SPJC officials had more reason to celebrate in June when the school got $8.6-million in federal funds to solidify partnerships with six other universities, creating the most extensive university partnership in the state.

With its second school year a week away, SPJC officials are hoping to continue to build on the school's successes while being careful not to move so quickly that they ignore the surrounding community.

Olliver recalled how one student expressed such concerns to a faculty member after reading newspaper articles touting the warp-speed pace of expansion on the campus.

"I hope you don't grow too much that you lose your sense of community," the student told the teacher.

It's a danger that the school has largely avoided, Olliver said.

Aside from a few minor glitches, SPJC officials believe the Seminole campus' first year was everything they hoped it would be. Reviews from students, community leaders and educators were good.

"I've heard a lot of good stuff about it," said Lisa Stephenson, 18, a Seminole High graduate who is taking some classes in the fall semester at the school.

"It's an impressive campus," said William Proctor, executive director of the Florida Post-Secondary Education Planning Commission, who toured the campus last year.

This school year promises to be one with lots of activity in and around campus.

About 700 students registered for about 1,300 classes last fall. As of Friday morning, more than 1,000 students had registered for 1,844 fall semester classes.

This semester, the school will embark on an ambitious program in which students can earn bachelor's degrees from schools such as Florida State, Florida A & M University and the University of Central Florida by taking classes at the Seminole campus. Students can work toward degrees in engineering technology, information systems technology, nursing, business accounting and computer science.

Rick Dodge, Pinellas County economic development director, said in June when the announcement was made that it was "the most significant development in Pinellas County" in 20 years.

The college has received more than 1,500 requests for information, said Lars Haffner, executive director of the College and University Center. Haffner said the requests are passed on to other schools, and officials do not know how many students have been accepted.

The classes will be taught in Seminole, Clearwater and at the Allstate Center in St. Petersburg but eventually will be moved into an 80,000-square-foot, three-story building just north of the Technology Learning Center. A groundbreaking ceremony will be in October with construction beginning in the spring, said Susan Reiter, SPJC's director of planning and facilities. The building is expected to be finished by 2001.

The college's television operations center has moved here from the Gibbs Campus in St. Petersburg.

Next month, a traffic light will be installed at the campus entrance off 113th Street.

In mid-November, work will begin on a project to create a series of ponds that will absorb rainwater and treat it before it flows into Lake Seminole. On-campus wetlands will be enhanced to serve as a filter for the stormwater.

And there's also the 10 portable buildings adjacent to the Technology Learning Center that have been brought in as classroom space for the fall semester.

Simply put, this school year will be a busy one.

"Pardon our progress," Olliver said.

SPJC officials are trying to create stronger ties with the community in several ways. The college will allow the City Council, county government groups and community organizations to use campus space for meetings. The campus will ask students to come up with a name for the portable complex.

The college, in response to inquiries from the hospitality industry, has completed a draft of a curriculum for hospitality classes.

City officials said the college has worked hard at being a good citizen. SPJC enlisted the help of an advisory committee with residents and community leaders before the campus opened. Olliver has been a constant presence at City Council meetings. And the college is working with the city on plans to build a 60,000-square-foot joint-use library.

"I personally feel they have been very concerned and sensitive to residents' needs," said Mayor Dottie Reeder, who noted how SPJC staff led Seminole Pow Wow attendees on a tour of the campus during this year's festival. "I feel that they have done everything to be responsive to the community."

Perhaps the greatest tests of SPJC's commitment to the community will be how well the college is able to draw students from the area and how satisfied the students will be with the staff, curriculum and gadgets such as the "smartboard." SPJC officials are targeting students from Seminole, south Largo and North Pinellas beach communities.

Though SPJC does not have complete statistics that detail who their students are and where they come from, campus officials believe the vast majority of course registrants came from the school's surrounding communities.

"It's convenient," said Will Ganci, 18, who graduated from Seminole High in the spring and is taking four classes this semester at the Seminole SPJC campus. "I never heard any complaints. I think it's nice. As far as I'm concerned, this is just as good as any other campus."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.