The results of the most ambitious construction project in Pinellas schools' history were unveiled this week to the project's toughest critics.
Gibbs High School staff members and students returned from winter break Monday to a brand new $46.6-million campus they had watched rise alongside their old school at 850 34th St. S.
More than two years in the making, the largest and most expensive school the district has ever built elicited oohs and ahhs from scores of students who arrived before 6:30 a.m. to get their bearings.
Clutching color-coded maps, they explored the 300,000-square-foot campus. By 7:05, about 2,200 of them were getting accustomed to new classrooms and preparing for their first day in what one administrator referred to as "a 21st-century palace."
"I woke up at 3 o'clock this morning and asked, "Is it time to go yet?' " said Gibbs principal Herman Allen. "This took a lot of planning on everyone's part, a lot of cooperation."
The school cost $16-million more than Palm Harbor University High, which was built in 1996 and was the last new traditional high school built in Pinellas, largely because of technology and arts equipment needed for the two magnet programs.
Despite protests from community members who recall preintegration days when Gibbs served generations of African-American students shut out of whites-only schools, the district decided to rebuild the school rather than renovate, said Tony Rivas, facilities director for Pinellas schools.
"It made more sense to rebuild rather than to expand or upgrade the current buildings," he said. "You would have ended up with old buildings with some new guts, but we still wouldn't have been utilizing the space well."
The old buildings, which date mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, were one story, Rivas said. Most of the new buildings are two stories. That better serves the school's larger population on the 37-acre campus.
The school's two magnet programs dictated a construction project unlike any undertaken on a Pinellas high school campus, Rivas said. The programs' needs also contributed to the cost.
The Pinellas County Center for the Arts required state-of-the-art facilities for music, theater and performing and visual arts, and the Business, Economics and Technology Academy needed the latest computer technology, said PCCA coordinator Ralph Nurmella, who served as the school's liaison to Ajax Building Corp.
"We now have probably twice as many computer labs as the average comprehensive high school," he said. "There also are custom-built facilities for each of the arts areas. The media center is huge."
Construction on the campus began on the site's southern end, allowing students to attend classes in the old school while the new school was built. Work was divided into two phases. Phase 1 included construction of buildings 1 through 8 and was primarily completed in time for the students' move this week. Phase 2, which includes demolition of the old school and construction of football, track, baseball and softball fields, should be completed by October.
Among the Phase 1 additions is a 152,000-square-foot section that includes classrooms, science and business technology labs, and a media center. BETA students, who attend class on the PTEC campus across the street from Gibbs, will join the rest of the student population in the fall.
The next largest section includes a gymnasium, locker rooms, classrooms and ROTC labs. Specialized classrooms for PCCA are housed in a 38,280-square-foot building that includes art and piano labs and instrument, vocal and band rehearsal rooms. A separate 800-seat theater with a hydraulic orchestra pit will be ready in the spring.
Cafeteria manager Terri Albee said she could hardly wait for the new school to be completed.
"We used to have freezers go down. We would have ovens not working. We would lose electricity, and we had a plumbing problem," she said. "This is like going from driving an old 1978 to driving a Hummer."
She hopes that a larger cafeteria will entice more students to eat lunch. The old cafeteria was so cramped that many students skipped lunch rather than face the crowd, she said.
Science teacher Mike Simmons also said he is looking forward to a better working environment.
"Nothing worked in the old school," he said. "We'd been operating so long on short fixes. This is like a whole new world."
Simmons has 36 Internet ports in his new science lab. He had only one in his old classroom. The additional technology will enable him to design research-based assignments and plan more group projects for his students.
He also expects that the new building will instill more respect in the students for their school. Throughout December, students had set a rash of small fires in trash cans at the old school.
"I am a firm believer that people respond to their surroundings," he said. "The school was old and dirty and broken down. I don't know how (the students) could conclude anything other than that people didn't care about them."
Some of the students seemed less sure that the new school will turn around the attitudes of their peers, although Nathan Watters, 16, predicted that a stepped-up security system _ 121 cameras have been mounted in strategic spots inside and outside the school _ may make some think twice before misbehaving.
"I would hope the kids would have enough respect, but it's hard to say," he said. "I think that's one of the things the kids have to want for themselves."
Since 2001, 13 Pinellas County schools have been either built from scratch or completely rebuilt in south Pinellas. The new Gibbs High is more than twice the size of the largest and cost $26.6-million more than the most expensive.
School Square feet Cost
Azalea Middle 167,809 $18.6-million
Bay Point Elementary 85,454 9.3-million
Bay Point Middle 165,182 20.0-million
Bayside High 90,000 15.0-million
Campbell Park Elementary 89,960 10.7-million
Fairmount Park Elementary 86,030 11.1-million
Gulfport Elementary 89,960 10.7-million
Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary 89,960 11.5-million
Thurgood Marshall Middle 156,074 18.5-million
The new Gibbs High School
Bldg. Square feet Includes
1 17,104 Administration, guidance
2 152,196 Classrooms, science and business technology
labs, media center, teacher offices
3 41,217 Gymnasium, locker rooms, classrooms, ROTC labs
4 36,156 Auditorium, PE classrooms, world language
labs, general classrooms, PCCA classrooms and
5 38,280 PCCA art labs, vocal classrooms, piano lab,
instrument, vocal and band rehearsal rooms,
recording and practice rooms, art lab,
6 26,573 Cafeteria
7 4,246 Maintenance and custodial work areas and
offices, physical plant mechanical and
8 25,286 Art studios, experimental theater and dance
Pinellas County Center for the Arts juniors Amber Allen, 16, and Autre Howard, 17, enjoy the modern and spacious new cafeteria Monday at the new Gibbs High School. "Our new school is awesome compared to the old school," Howard said. The new cafeteria holds about 1,000 of the school's more than 2,200 students.