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    Campus grows to take on new roles

    A new museum and a proposal to offer bachelor's degrees in Tarpon Springs are extensions of the college's mission, the campus provost says.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

    TARPON SPRINGS -- Between what is under construction and what is being proposed, the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg Junior College could end up with a new museum of modern art, a much larger library, new bachelor's degree programs and perhaps 500 more students.

    That might sound like a lot of new and different stuff, but the campus' chief administrator sees each change as the logical extension of an academic mission that began more than 30 years ago.

    Take, for instance, the $12-million project that includes the new Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, as well as the Michael M. Bennett Library and an art education center.

    The 57,000-square-foot museum and hands-on art center is being built on the northwest edge of the campus at U.S. 19 and Klosterman Road. Administrators expect to have access to the building in September and plan a grand opening in January.

    "The Leepa-Rattner museum and that entire project is something that solidifies and broadens our academic program," said Nick Billiris, SPJC's provost for the Tarpon Springs campus.

    Early on, SPJC had an arts studio at its Tarpon Springs center. In the late 1970s, however, as more students enrolled to pursue careers as dental hygienists, nurses and medical lab technicians, administrators decided to "put our art program on the back burner" and to convert the studio into a science lab, Billiris said.

    Administrators got a chance to revive the arts program thanks to the generosity of Tarpon Springs abstract artist Allen Leepa and his wife, Isabelle. In 1996, they gave the college $2.15-million, along with thousands of pieces of art that will make up the collection at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art.

    Most of the paintings, sketches and sculptures were created by Leepa; his stepfather, mid-20th century artist Abraham Rattner; and Leepa's mother, Esther Gentle Rattner. But the Leepa-Rattner collection also includes works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Georges Rouault and Henry Moore.

    When finished, the museum will have a display area for the permanent exhibition, as well as a gallery for changing exhibits, a student art gallery, a museum store, an auditorium seating 80 to 100 and a Challenge of Modern Art Exploration Center. In addition to the library, the building will include classrooms and three art studios.

    In the Rattner exhibition area, "each wall will be a different color to kind of set the mood for that period of his life, like a red wall for a period when he was angry," said Vivian DeRussy, the college's interior designer.

    The museum's interactive exhibits will include what will seem like the opportunity to walk through a Rattner painting, said Joseph O'Connell, owner of the company that is creating the interactive exhibits. As they pass through, visitors will be "painted" with projected light and will go behind the painting itself, where they will learn about the art through words and images.

    "They'll oscillate between learning and getting a chance to do things themselves," O'Connell said.

    By bringing the arts back to campus in a big way, the Leepa-Rattner museum will help the college in its long-range recruitment efforts, Billiris said. The museum's staff already has begun discussions with art directors at public schools in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. One idea would be for students at those schools to do background work on the museum's collection at their own schools and then come, tour the museum and speak with docents.

    The value of those field trips, Billiris said, is that elementary and middle school students get comfortable with the idea of coming on campus.

    "They can feel there's a comfort zone; it's natural to come to campus," Billiris said. "It's not something that's over there sitting on a hill, and it's not for me."

    Not that the campus has had trouble attracting students.

    SPJC's history in Tarpon Springs goes back to 1970, when the city offered space atop a local bank building. Billiris said the college's "unofficial service area" originally included everything north of Curlew Road, including Pasco and Hernando counties. At the time, he noted, Pasco-

    Hernando Community College didn't exist.

    A native of Tarpon Springs, Billiris had attended SPJC in St. Petersburg during the 1950s, and he knew firsthand how inconvenient it was not to have a college closer to home. As a student, he and his classmates would gather at 6 a.m. at Alt. U.S. 19 and Tarpon Avenue to catch a bus for a two-hour ride to the St. Petersburg campus.

    The Tarpon Springs campus enrolled 150 students its first year. Since then, more than 50,000 students have passed through the campus. During the current academic year, it will see about 5,000 students.

    Seventy percent of the students at the Tarpon Springs campus are enrolled in the two-year university transfer program. The University of South Florida gets the largest number of those transfers, followed by the University of Florida, Florida State and the University of Central Florida, in that order.

    Billiris said the bachelor's degree programs proposed in a bill recently filed by state Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, would also continue the college's mission to serve North Pinellas, as well as Pasco and Hernando counties. Sullivan's bill notes that Pinellas County is home to more than twice as many college-age residents as four of the counties that have free-standing state universities.

    If passed, the bill would require SPJC, which would be renamed St. Petersburg College and University Center, to seek accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

    As proposed, the college would offer bachelor's degrees in nursing as well as elementary, secondary and special education. It also would offer bachelor of applied science degrees in areas based "on an analysis of work force needs and opportunities in . . . Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando" counties, according to the bill.

    "As we look at the four-year degree program, it falls sequentially in the process," Billiris said. "The people north of Curlew Road are again challenged by distance and traffic" separating them from the nearest four-year university.

    Creating the new bachelor's degree programs in Tarpon Springs, he said, will "enable them to continue their education."

    - Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or

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