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Private, first class

Many private academies are going through a growth spurt, adding space and updating antiquated facilities.

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002

TAMPA -- Erin Bentley begins her sophomore year at Tampa Preparatory School on Sept. 3. She's not sad to see summer end.

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The new Tampa Preparatory School campus near downtown, foreground, across Cass Street from the old campus, opens to students on Sept. 3. The new campus has a state-of-the-art black box theater and an athletic complex with an outdoor pool.
She eagerly anticipates the first day of classes, when she will enter the halls of Tampa Prep's brand new campus, a $22-million complex on the banks of the Hillsborough River near downtown.

"I've never been so excited for the first day of school," Bentley says. "Just the fact that everything's brand new makes it really exciting."

Going to Tampa Prep once meant squeezing through a crush of students in a 50,000-square-foot building leased from the University of Tampa.

The new school has three times the space -- an administrative and academic building with a fine arts wing, computer labs, media center and cafeteria; a state-of-the-art black box theater; and an athletic complex with an outdoor swimming pool.

"We were so crowded in the other building. We had teachers who didn't have their own classrooms," says Robin Kennedy, communications director.

Hers isn't the only South Tampa school to welcome students with a new learning environment.

Private academies are riding a building boom, driven by the need to update antiquated facilities.

Monday, St. John Greek Orthodox Day School breaks ground on an 18,200-square-foot building to house science and computer labs and a media center.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Details in the new Academy of Holy Names' new student center include crosses within the windows that face MacDill Avenue.
Three other schools -- St. Mary's Episcopal, Academy of the Holy Names and St. John's Episcopal -- have recently reinvented campuses at a combined cost of $24-million.

In the eyes of school administrators, expansion was inevitable.

"We're talking about rooms with one wall socket, and we were trying to add 20 computers to the room," says Scott Laird, headmaster at St. Mary's Episcopal.

St. Mary's debuted a 50,000-square-foot academic building last fall. Then, over the summer, workers put finishing touches on four renovated classrooms, offering new multimedia space, a home for the after-school program, a meeting room for parents and an updated science lab.

St. John's Episcopal students returned Wednesday to a new gym and classroom annex that includes a state-of-the-art science lab and the first dedicated art space the school has had in its 51-year history, says headmaster Anthony Fruhaus. Last year it added new media and computer technology centers and a chapel.

"We're all doing identical things," says Colleen Brady, president and CEO of Academy of the Holy Names.

The schools all needed media centers, cafeterias, fine arts space and science labs, she notes.

"Those programs have really changed," she says, "and you have to keep up with the changes."

* * *

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Laura Harrington and other incoming freshmen at the Academy of Holy Names receive bags with a Jesuit football schedule and other goodies at an orientation organized by the student council.
When Academy of the Holy Names reopens Monday, students will see two new buildings totaling 47,000 square feet.

The buildings house a 10,000-square-foot library with more than 100 computers, a seminar classroom for faculty and staff, a video production studio, performing arts classrooms, a student center, cafeteria and theater.

In a few weeks, a junior olympic swimming pool complex will open across the street on the school's MacDill campus. The project has been in the works for three years. Architectural firm Cooper Johnson Smith designed the structures to blend with the school's original building, which has been a fixture on Bayshore Boulevard since 1927.

Improvements hadn't been made to Academy's Bayshore campus in more than 50 years. The school's newest building is the gymnasium, which was built in 1991 on the MacDill campus.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Incoming freshmen at the Academy of Holy Names decorate a poster during orientation.
"We had three libraries and all were woefully inadequate, in terms of providing volumes, and were not able to keep up with the technology for research," Brady says.

School administrators stress that the expansions aren't intended to lure more kids but to take better care of those in attendance.

Despite tripling its size, Tamp Prep increased its student body by only 50 and will cap enrollment at 600. Enrollment stayed the same at Academy of the Holy Names (870) and St. Mary's (440).

The Academy's next planned expansion will add teaching space, making way for 90 more students, but class size is expected to shrink overall.

* * *

Parents and alumni are responding to the private school growth spurts by giving generously to capital improvement campaigns.

The Academy raised $6-million to help fund its $12-million project.

Contributions to St. Mary's reached $8-million.

St. John Greek Orthodox raised $1.3-million.

St. John's Episcopal collected more than $4-million.

* * *

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Tampa Preparatory School's new campus is nearly three times the size of its former space by the University of Tampa.
Parents and administrators say the enhancements add value to programs that already enjoyed excellent reputations, waiting lists and rigorous entry requirements.

Students applying to Tampa Prep must score in the top half of the Secondary School Admission Test, submit transcripts and teacher recommendations and conduct themselves well in an interview.

Once enrolled, they face a tough curriculum, but small class sizes permit more attention from teachers. St. Mary's and Academy of the Holy Names limit classes to 25 students, and middle school classes at Tampa Prep average 16 students.

[Times photo: Stefannie Boyar]
Teachers tour the athletic complex at Tampa Prep's new $22-million campus near downtown Tampa. The turtle that hangs in the lobby was painted by students.
Parents pay dearly for the privilege (tuition at Tampa Prep tops $11,000 a year), hoping kids will get a better education than they might in public school.

The investment seems to yield returns.

In 2001, Tampa Prep students averaged SAT scores of 1,204. Academy of the Holy Names pupils averaged 1,149.

That compares to 1,005 for Hillsborough County public schools.

Fred and Debbie Hoffman said they chose Tampa Prep to better prepare their seventh-grade son, Eric, for college.

They picked the school even before knowing about its new campus.

"The position at Tampa Prep is they don't really have honors courses. All courses are honors courses," Fred Hoffman says.

"The new building is icing on the cake."

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