Chamberlain gushes problems
Showing its age - 50 - the high school stinks of sewer gas and awaits a raft of repairs.
By AMBER MOBLEY
Published March 18, 2007
TAMPA - Sometimes the smell of sewage wafts down the hallways of Chamberlain High, mingling like a social butterfly from the cafeteria to the classroom to the office to the gym.
Heat from the decades-old boiler isn't always hot. The air conditioning isn't always cold.
And then there are the rodents.
Along with 50 years of proud traditions, graduates who include Cal Henderson and Lauren Hutton and accolades for an academic honors program, Chamberlain High School is carrying a half-century of wear and tear.
Students say they don't expect Chamberlain to look and feel like a brand-new school. But from little things like layers upon layers of chipped paint on the walls and doors that don't quite shut right to bigger issues such as leaking pipes, Chamberlain feels forgotten.
At a districtwide forum in January, students took the chance to complain about the noxious gases from ill-functioning drains.
"The school kind of stinks sometimes" is what students told senior Sarah McCauley when she polled them beforehand.
Principal Jeff Boldt was not embarrassed.
"They could've talked about anything, but they took issues that deal with everybody," he said.
"They have 30 minutes for lunch and you have to smell sewer gas while you eat ... and then they're expected to perform academically."
Odor is just one of many physical problems afflicting what long was Tampa's northernmost high school.
As magnet schools have opened for the musically talented and academically ambitious, Chamberlain has fought to uphold a sense of pride and a reputation for high standards.
After International Baccalaureate programs elsewhere in the district began drawing top students, Chamberlain beefed up its Advanced Placement program by offering a four-year AP Scholars program that has been recognized twice by the College Board for outstanding student participation and performance.
Yet the atmosphere can be depressing; particularly, the smell. Akin to rotten eggs, cabbage and urine, it causes students to scrunch up their faces between periods and cover their noses and mouths with shirts while taking notes in class.
"It's awful when you walk in and you smell that yucky smell," said School Board member Susan Valdes, whose district includes Chamberlain.
Valdes wants to see changes, big and small at Chamberlain. Pipes need to be replaced, the cafeteria needs expansion and the kitchen needs better ventilation, she said. More custodians are needed because of so many age-related problems, she said.
"These kids deserve the same that any new school gets, and that's been my beef with this whole thing: the inequities," Valdes said.
Reinvesting in school
Is 50 years old for a school?
Not in Tampa.
The Hillsborough County school district keeps its school buildings open longer than almost any district in the state.
"We don't tear schools down," said school district spokesman Steve Hegarty. "We don't close them down. We renovate and keep them open. It seems to be a wiser expenditure of funds."
Opened in September 1956, the school is the county's third-oldest continuously operating high school behind Plant and Hillsborough.
Bob Martinez, former Florida governor and Tampa mayor, taught there.
Hillsborough County's all-time winningest coach, football coach Billy Turner, has spent nearly 30 years there.
And in coming years, the school district is reinvesting money in Chamberlain - lots of it. A five-year plan calls for nearly $2-million in renovations. Workers will repair the roof, replace the bleachers and install better-fitting air-conditioning and heating vents.
Engineers are studying the school's plumbing and considering electric heat, said Richard Scionti, Chamberlain's assistant principal of administration.
Already they have patched up many of the cracks and crevices where rodents appeared to be slipping through.
A $6.5-million remodeling between 1999 and 2002 refurbished the carpet, terrazzo floors, auditorium lighting, toilets and other amenities.
Five years later, wear and tear is apparent, students say.
On Presidents Day, while a cold snap wrapped the area's mornings in temperatures below 50 degrees, the pipes in room 302 started leaking as custodians warmed up the boiler.
"We have a great faculty, academics and extracurriculars, but the facility needs some work," said senior Rob Parrish, "and it's a distraction from all the outstanding things we do."
Fighting the funk
As the students await a formal response from the School Board forum, workers both at the school and in district headquarters are addressing the odor problem.
The district plans to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to replace the school's aging pipes, said Hegarty.
But those major renovations, now in the design and engineering stage, will most likely occur in phases, he said.
Until then, custodians try to fight the funk by running water through the toilets and sinks.
"The one thing that seems to help us," said Principal Boldt, "is to keep a constant flow of water in the P-traps," the U-shaped piping underneath sinks and toilets. That water flow keeps the sewer gas sealed in the pipes and out of the air.
Many of the restrooms have mechanical problems in addition to olfactory ones.
A toilet in the girls' restroom in the gym sprays water like a lawn sprinkler when flushed.
And restrooms in the front hall constantly back up.
The others are no better, said senior Eric Joen.
"I won't go anywhere but my house. Seriously," said Joen, who came to Chamberlain from Puerto Rico last January. "In Puerto Rico it's bad," he said, "but never this bad."
Amber Mobley can be reached at email@example.com or 813 269-5311.
2,253 Total students
9 American Indian/ Alaskan
926 Economically disadvantaged
152 Limited English proficient
369 Students with disabilities
Source: Hillsborough County School District (2006)
Famous Chamberlain alumni
Forest Blue, former all-pro center for the San Francisco 49ers
Mary Hall, who became super model and actor Lauren Hutton
Cal Henderson, former Hillsborough County sheriff
Steve Garvey, former player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres