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Class dismissed

Vandalism. Graffiti. No respect. Welcome to Gibbs High. Can the glory days return?

By JOHN BARRY
Published February 11, 2007


“I’m not a yeller. I’ll suspend them, send them on their way, and tell them I love them.”

Gibbs High School principal Antelia Campbell greets sophomore Noonie Peterson with “sweet pea” and then reminds her class is about to begin.
photo
[Times photo: Martha Rial]
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ST. PETERSBURG

The old Gibbs was a dump, a 1928 asbestos-ridden relic. The principal and janitor shared a room. Biology students shared a frog. Everyone remembers old Gibbs as a shrine.

The new Gibbs cost $58-million, the most expensive school ever built in Pinellas County. It has everything. It has 2,300 students. Four in 10 are poor. Four in 10 won't graduate. An anonymous letter went to the superintendent on Dec. 15. The authors claimed to be "very disgusted teachers."

They wrote: "Here is a list of some of the outrageous things going on: Students defecating on the floors and in the sinks in the bathroom. Students having such terrible fights everywhere that their food was taken away. Students setting aerosol cans on fire. . . . Every other word is f---, s---."

Gibbs made the front pages.

Somewhere in this lies the shrine. Old bricks come down, new bricks go up, but Gibbs remains Gibbs. It's still all the kids have, their only hope. Everybody from the old and the new Gibbs knows that.

The historian

When the finger is pointed at Gibbs High School, it's not just pointed at the kids who scribbled graffiti and cursed teachers. It's pointed at Minson Rubin, Class of '63. It's pointed at everyone who went there since 1928. That's how he feels.

He's 61. Retired. Remembers how kids had to catch that frog in the creek for biology class. Has a grown son who was Class of '83. Wears a Gibbs Gladiator T-shirt around the house. Has a new letterman's jacket. Still serves on the Gibbs PTA. Still knows his alma mater by heart. "Dear Gibbs School," he sings, "we'll ne'er part. Memories, loyalty, will e'er be in every heart."

Kids have too many rights, Rubin says. "I was a student during segregation. I had no rights. When I was on the basketball team, we'd go get a hamburger someplace and they'd send us around back. I asked, 'Do you put my money in the bottom of the cash register?' I had no rights. I wasn't angry. If you got angry about anything, you went to jail."

He had Gibbs. "It was the heart of the community." He played basketball. "Every day, a teacher asked, 'What's your ambition?' " He played his way into a career as head basketball coach at Largo High.

They should have saved some of the old bricks, he says. "People didn't take responsibility to preserve what needed to be preserved."

All that Gibbs was from 1928 on resides in a dusty storage locker he rents at Spare Room Storage on 34th Street S. Behind a padlock, generations of teachers, principals, secretaries, champion basketball and football players - even old Jonathan C. Gibbs himself, dearly departed since 1873 - peer out. They smile proudly in the dim light in framed photos and posters Rubin made himself.

In other schools, these treasures are displayed in giant glass cases. Championship banners from glorious seasons past hang over gymnasiums. The glory that was Gibbs shines on in Rubin's storage locker.

He got a call from a woman wanting to donate a Gibbs cheerleader sweater. It's wool, cream-colored with gold trim.

"She got it out of the trash."

The students

McKenndrick Pringley, Class of '07, followed his mother into Gibbs. And his grandmother. And his two uncles.

Kiara Kitchen, Class of '08, followed her mom into Gibbs. And her grandmother and grandfather. And her uncle.

They have been told since childhood that Gibbs was once the only school for African-Americans. Kiara's mother tells stories from her day. "She was a real bad troublemaker," Kiara says. "She'd fight and get into it with teachers." Her mom said Gibbs saved her.

The school is no longer exclusively black, exclusively extended family. Its performing arts and business technology magnets constitute schools within the school. The district's Choice plan brings in students from as far off as Tarpon Springs. For all its benefits, diversity has buried the Gibbs family. Even family feels different.

"I have 15 cousins coming here next year," Kiara says, gloomily. "And I get called over to Tyrone Middle for problems with my brother and sister. I already know it's not going to be pretty next year. Me being a senior, that could hurt my name."

She and McKenndrick like their principal, Antelia Campbell. Their families went to Gibbs with her family. They barely remember the principal of 2005. When they first saw Campbell last fall, she had on a Gibbs T-shirt. She was saying hello. "I thought she was a teacher," Kiara says.

McKenndrick says all the winners of the county Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest came from Gibbs this year. Doesn't sell newspapers. There was bad stuff in the paper about a teacher rigging the homecoming election. "It's like the school just cheats, cheats, cheats," Kiara says. She didn't like it when a news photographer took pictures of students during the uproar over the letter. "All we were doing was getting on a bus."

The anonymous letter said students had defecated on the floors. That made the news, too. The principal said there was one boy. He was in classes for the emotionally disabled. He did it once in a hallway, once in a restroom. Thought it was a joke. He got caught.

Kiara and McKenndrick ponder one day continuing the family tradition, sending their own kids to Gibbs. McKenndrick brings up "uproars in class," and a group called the Water Color Gang causing trouble. Kiara talks about being late for class "because of someone acting retarded in front of me."

Kiara already has a baby daughter. "I wanted her to go. Not now."

McKenndrick won't tolerate violence. "If that happens, my kids are getting out."

Neither Kiara nor McKenndrick know the alma mater.

The singers

Long ago, the Alumni Singers were the St. Cecilia Chorus of Gibbs High School. They reunited for Gibbs' golden anniversary in 1980 and have never stopped singing. Every Thursday night, they rehearse at the Enoch Davis community center.

Four of them are Class of '57: Carolyn Hobbs, Helen Shaw, Yvonne Clayton and Betty Howard. Then there's Henry Oliver, Class of '52.

Those were the years when Gibbs was a dump. They know that. But they don't remember that.

"The red brick I still remember," Hobbs says. "It represented such majesty."

"It was so beautiful it made you cry," Betty Howard says.

"I remember Ernest Ponder, the choir director," says Yvonne Clayton. "He took us to Florida A&M. I said, 'This is where I'm going to be someday.' "

Turned out it was.

The vandalism stories make them want to rally, to stand up. "We asked what could we do to help," Clayton said. "We're in the process of finding out."

Oliver, who went on from Gibbs to become a school superintendent in New Jersey, said it's not just a Gibbs family problem. "It's not just the stage that has changed. The play has changed. Everything in the world has changed."

They are shown a copy of Minson Rubin's alma mater. No, they say, that's a later version. They learned the original.

Three sopranos, an alto and a baritone sing out: "Dear old Gibbs High, you're the world to me. Dear old Gibbs High, you will always be."

The custodian

Every day, Larry Lee's job was the graffiti. He's Class of '70, the last before integration. Lee's father and mother and uncle went to school with the principal's father. He has been a custodian at Gibbs since 1994.

The new school doesn't feel like Gibbs, he says. Maybe that's good. He had to duck rainstorms going from class to class. There was no air conditioning.

Yet, "I know this is Gibbs but it doesn't feel like it. It's like home, but you know it isn't.

"It don't show memories."

He starts work at 7 a.m. He works with a woman. She gets the girls rooms, he gets the boys. Off he goes with his scrub brush and bucket, cleaning the three bathrooms in Building 4, the three in Building 5, and the gym locker room in Building 8.

He comes to Building 2. That's where the graffiti was. The girls bathrooms were just as bad.

"It was endless. There was gang stuff, pictures, names. The permanent markers I couldn't take off. I'd paint them over."

Other janitors tell him it's like that in all the schools.

He never saw graffiti when he went to Gibbs. If someone had marked the walls, other students would have cleaned it up. "Neatness starts at home," he says.

"Gibbs is an opportunity to get somewhere. No one can say we don't have an equal chance anymore. Some kids don't care, but a lot of kids believe that. We're pulling together like family."

It's been so long, he can't remember his alma mater.

The principal

Antelia Campbell set out to be the kind of principal her father had talked about. He was Class of '70. He talked about Gibbs as family, a place where the principal knew his name and his parents' names, knew everyone.

She would be different from her predecessor, who managed down. She would manage up - in Gibbs Gladiator blue and gold, meeting the buses. How're you doing? What are you working on? She would know students and their brothers, sisters and parents. She would give hugs. She would be the principal of second chances.

Campbell was raised by her grandmother, just down the street. Her grandmother and great-grandmother told her Gibbs was a place where people came together. "It was what they had. When people have little, they value what they have."

Campbell resuscitated the pep rally tradition. It had died years before. "All I could see that day in the stadium was blue and gold." She reinstituted the homecoming parade on school grounds. Next year she wants to take the parade down the streets. She knows both alma maters.

Just before Christmas, when the superintendent showed up with the damning letter, Campbell wasn't wearing her usual business suit. It was the last exam day. All exam days - and Fridays - are Gladiator blue and gold days, another tradition Campbell revived. "I set the stage by wearing my T-shirt."

Right behind the superintendent came the media, wanting to see the graffiti. She was photographed in her T-shirt, beside the graffiti, her face blank.

The next weekend, Campbell spoke at the Class of '66 40th reunion dinner.

"They asked, 'Dear God, are those stories true?' I said, 'Yes, those things did happen.' I'm not running away from what people think."

Campbell liked Joe Clark, the bat-wielding principal in the movie Lean on Me. He told students: "We sink, we swim, we rise, we fall. We meet our fate together."

She wants to make kids at Gibbs believe that. "He put a lot of responsibility on kids. I think I can do that."

That's the big unknown. Even good kid Kiara Kitchen - the teenage mother who wants her child to go to a well-run school - wandered away after her shoe broke apart as the principal and a St. Petersburg Times photographer waited for her at her scheduled class.

Joe Clark threatened people with a baseball bat. He forced students to learn the alma mater. That is not Campbell's style.

"I don't have to be Crazy Joe."

In her old job as an assistant principal at Tarpon Springs High School, she sometimes could hear adults yelling so loud the sound passed through walls. She had made friends with Diane Gary, the community involvement director. "I'm not a yeller," she told Gary. "I'll suspend them, send them on their way, and tell them I love them."

Diane Gary said, "You're crazy. You're absolutely crazy."

John Barry can be reached at 727 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 11, 2007, 05:14:55]


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