tampabay.com

Auditorium's new life proceeds with baby steps

By RICK GERSHMAN
Published February 16, 2007


Every race actually does begin with a single step. So by that reckoning, the D.W. Waters Career Center's auditorium fund is off to the races.

It's just going to be an extremely long race.

The Jefferson High School Alumni Museum donated $2,000 Tuesday to a fund established to renovate the auditorium on this Highland Avenue campus.

While every bit helps, the auditorium is expected to cost close to $2.5-million to renovate.

So it's a small step. But it kicks off an effort that Waters principal Veronica Knight calls most worthy.

This campus, which originally housed Hillsborough County's first high school, is just four years shy of its 100th birthday.

It's been a couple of junior high and high schools over the years and has spent almost a half-century as the original Jefferson High.

This is where the Dragons played sports, sang and cheered after the school bell rang.

These days, as central Tampa's career center, its purpose is entirely utilitarian.

Waters is a learning center for high school-age students who struggle with traditional schooling and are behind at least a grade.

Before she was an American Idol finalist, Jessica Sierra studied cosmetology here. But she never sang here, because there's nowhere to sing.

This isn't a place of music, of theater, of sports.

There are no extracurricular activities, no opportunities for school spirit or for these students to assemble.

When the school recently put on a talent show, Knight said, it did so in "sections," because the cafeteria can only fit about a third of the 300-plus student body.

And the auditorium? It's a wreck, left out during an $8-million campus renovation in 2002. The auditorium renovation originally was expected to cost an additional $1.2-million.

"It's probably around $2.5-million now, but our students are very deserving," Knight said, tearing up as she spoke.

"This was not built to be a career center like the other ones were. Our students are deserving to let their talent show."

Unfortunately, with small donations such as that from the alumni group, there's no indication Waters has any hope of renovating its auditorium any time soon.

The project is not on the school district's five-year plan, where new classrooms and schools are the top priorities.

Though working toward a new auditorium is a long road, it's one worth traveling, said Wynelle Gilbert, curator of the JHS Alumni Museum. Grass roots initiatives like this can pay off, and she has proof.

"Our committee went to work to save the school building when Jefferson closed in 1967," she said.

"We started a museum, we began to collect memorabilia, we sold snacks, we sold bricks from the campus to graduates."

The alumni association worked to keep the building from being torn down, Gilbert said, and eventually it persuaded the district to do the $8-million renovation.

Now, the grads just have to do something about that pesky auditorium.

A few ideas have potential, such as selling the original auditorium's chairs for $50 each, which helped get the ball rolling.

But no one's under any illusion that this will go quickly.

"It'll take years," Gilbert said. "This will be a long, drawn-out process."

Said Knight: "It's going to take a lot of nickels and dimes to make it happen."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.