A first for Freedom
By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA PALMS -- They arrived in Mercedes and BMWs and big yellow school buses.
Sporting brand-new outfits, empty book bags and first-day nerves, the inaugural classes of Freedom High School filed onto the sprawling campus.
I can't find room 301.
Where's driver's ed?
Do you know where the bathroom is?
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and blue and red tie speckled with stars, principal Richard Bartels guided the new students to their destinations Wednesday with the no-nonsense savvy of an air traffic controller.
Using a walkie-talkie, he monitored the main office, where staff worked to register late students. Others, neglected by a computer glitch that did not recognize some former Gaither and Wharton students as Freedom "Patriots," were shepherded toward the media center and a group of guidance counselors.
In the background, a choir from the neighboring USAA insurance company belted out The Star-Spangled Banner. Crowds meandered by on pristine sidewalks, past young palm trees supported by wood beams and "Wet Paint" signs on building walls. From the walls, poster-board signs beckoned students to try out for cheerleading, volleyball and the swim team.
And as the bell rang and the hallways cleared, Bartels surveyed the $38.5-million high school campus that shares space with Liberty Middle School. The sky grew lighter and the humid August heat set in.
"It's a typical first day of school," he said.
A few glitches, some minor fanfare and Hillsborough County launched its first joint campus.
The man with the plan
The morning did not start with coffee.
The 53-year-old principal does not drink it, does not need it.
While some rely on caffeine to pull them through, Bartels opts for organization and experience.
He has weathered 33 first days as an educator and administrator.
Three decades of lost students, new teachers, lunchroom chaos, anxious parents, pranks, scheduling woes, understocked classrooms and surprises.
"You try to plan for "what if,"' he said during second period, his voice echoing in the empty cafeteria to be shared by Freedom and Liberty students later in the day.
"We've had 806 kids today," he said, a black walkie-talkie squawking at his side. When all is said and done, enrollment is expected to exceed 1,000 students in its first year. "We were 100 percent scheduled in mid May. We could have opened school then."
For Bartels, the first day of school is about preparation, planning and setting the tone.
"What you see today is what I expect for the rest of the year: nobody out of class without a pass," he said as he eyed the empty hallways, cleared of stragglers and of seven teenage trespassers.
The group of mostly Wharton students had showed up on campus early in the morning to visit a favorite football coach and tried to enroll. When they took a detour -- knocking on classroom doors and running away -- they were seen and arrested by a school resource officer.
"The administration at Freedom will be very visible," Bartels promised.
But not so visible that teachers need to fear surprise visits on the first day.
"I don't do that," he said.
Books would be issued the second day. Lockers after that. Students and staff were adjusting to seven, 50-minute classes instead of a standard block schedule.
And, as with any Day One, there were wrinkles to iron out.
From getting lost to boarding the wrong bus, Freedom students faced an entirely different set of worries on Wednesday.
But there was really only one fear on the first day, they said.
"Do not sit by yourself," advised a group of freshmen who crowded around an emerald green cafeteria table laden with homemade lunches and congealing cheese pizza. It's right up there with "don't trip" and "don't fall down the stairs" on the list of social no-no's.
Don't "show up for the wrong class," said 14-year-old Alison Burt who lives in Lutz.
And try not to embarrass yourself too much, added ninth-grader Joshua Root of Tampa Palms.
"Don't bring drugs," said Grace Jones, a 14-year-old from Pebble Creek who received a special assignment to transfer here from Wharton.
"And make sure you're in dress code; no bellies. They're really strict about that," said Maggie Daniel, 14, from Tampa Palms.
"Don't put any makeup on in class," she added. "I was putting on lip gloss in English and (the teacher) told me to put it away. Then she gave a whole lecture."
Was that in fourth period? a table-mate asked.
The petite blond paused and shrugged her shoulders, adding "know your schedule" to the list.
Many students approached the new joint campus with mixed feelings.
Divided by school boundaries, a number of Freedom's inaugural students left siblings, friends, favorite teachers and coaches behind. Others made the leap from Benito and Buchanan middle schools.
The perk, they said, is that everything is new, from books to bathrooms to buildings.
"It smells good," Daniel said. "And there's no gum underneath the desks."
At least not yet, said Jacque Sufka, 13, of Tampa Palms.
Everybody is new so there are fewer cliques.
But members of Freedom's junior class (and ultimately its first senior class next year) had a unique concern.
"We're outnumbered," said 16-year-old Colleen Stevens of Tampa Palms, standing outside her honors physics class.
"There's like 120 juniors and 1,200 of us in the school," said Lutz junior Jennifer Hansen, looking toward the sprawling student parking lot where only two dozen cars sat.
Oh well, she said. "I'm driving. I just got a car on Monday. A '94 Accord ... at least I'll have plenty of parking spaces."
And for the next two years, the junior class will be the leaders of Freedom.
"A lot of high school is remembering the stuff you did; clubs and yearbook," Hansen said. There is a newspaper to name, an alma mater to write and a school logo to select. "I want to start new things, new traditions."
In the weeks before school, they settled into classrooms, decorated walls, prepared lesson plans and syllabi
The first day is kind of awkward for teachers, too, admitted AP English and journalism instructor Christie Gold, Hillsborough County's 2001 Teacher of the Year.
"You're not really doing your thing. You have to go over rules and schedules," she said. "I like the second day, when you can really start doing what you're good at."
Inside Room 501, her homework assignments were already written on the white dry-erase board. An American flag was pinned next to it and beside the clock, a movie poster of Mel Gibson in The Patriot was taped to the wall.
Her first-year journalism students have her a little nervous, said Gold, folding her arms neatly on her desk. "I haven't taught ninth-graders before. On parent night I passed out the syllabus, and one boy looked at it and said: "Oh! I have to write in here?"'
But as the students filed in after lunch, Gold stepped outside to greet them with a smile, welcoming a small group who confessed they had little experience but were willing to learn.
On the board, a quote written in bright blue marker offered reassurance:
"Everyone has talent; what is rare is the courage to follow the talent ... where it leads."
It is a statement true of life and school openings, said Bartels.
"It was a challenge," he said after the final bell rang and the last bus pulled out of Freedom's parking lot.
"The students, some of them were glad to be here. Some were apprehensive. The teachers, they're going to develop the talent of our students. And for me personally, it's an extraordinary opportunity to open a new school. It's something I've always wanted to do."
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