The following is a article from the News-Press:
McCabe, Pamela | Aug. 9, 2019
The roar of table saws and drills could not compete with the excitement booming from the podium at Lehigh Senior High School, where a pep-rally style celebration cheered on the near-completion of a $13 million expansion project.
At the helm of the celebration was a two-story building, which will become home to the school’s massive JROTC program and the history department, formerly housed in portables at the back-end of campus.
But with a construction crew still churning up mud and noise at the school, located off of Gunnery Road, district staff made assurances the building will be ready for students come Monday.
And that’s important, as Lehigh Senior is expecting 2,600 students on the first day of school.
“I am not afraid of that,” said Principal Jackie Corey, who recalls how nervous she felt joining the school eight years ago when it was a campus of 1,600 kids.
Since then, the school has grown in numbers, but it’s also gained more community support.
“We have created a place where we have teacher retention, and teachers want to be (here), kids want to come and the families support us,” Corey said. “And that is all because of this amazing school family, and I am so excited for the journey we’re getting ready to go into.”
Design work for the project began in October 2017, with actual construction starting in January.
Aside from the two-story build-out, the project revamped the bottom floors of three other buildings to add more space for kids. This includes the addition of more digital media rooms, an expanded school clinic and the growth of a culinary academy.
Over the summer, perimeter gates were also added to give the Lehigh campus a single-point of entry for safety regulations, and another project, to the tune of $2 million, is helping bring the school’s windows up to modern hurricane code.
The expansion project added or remodeled 73,000 square feet of space on campus and created about 700 new student stations, explained Superintendent Greg Adkins.
Creating more space for kids to learn, he said, is important to the district, which expects more than 95,000 students to start school next week.
“Our student stations are in great need here in our East Zone because we are growing rapidly,” Adkins told the group. “But we are addressing growth not just with this project, but also we have additional projects for the new high school opening up next year, a middle school the year after that and then later on an elementary school.”
Funding provided by the half-cent sales tax, which was approved by 51.5% of the voters in November, helped speed up these projects. Initially, however, Lehigh’s expansion and the future high school in Gateway will be covered by a $105 million loan.
“I do have to say that it is not lost on us how this community really came together to show its support for public education,” Adkins said.
For students in the JROTC program, that means a lot.
Lehigh is expecting 1,307 cadets when school starts next week — making it the largest JROTC program in the nation.
But prior to the new building being on campus, those students were crammed into four classrooms, and storage of gear and about 3,000 uniforms was minimal.
Often, the cadets could be seen in the courtyard, practice fields by the football stadium, and, on rainy days, in hallways just outside other classrooms.
While cadets will still march around campus, the new space provides an outdoor pavilion and a large, indoor multipurpose room. The building also comes with changing rooms, storage, hallway lockers and classroom space that can be partitioned off for smaller groups.
And that’s the “biggest change” for students, explained 17-year-old Suzette Brito, who is a senior and the colonel, or “top dog,” of the program.
Brito is also excited about the rappelling tower and zipline that was added to the building. The cadets used to travel to Riverdale High School to train in these techniques, so that is “a whole new experience for our cadets.”
Walking through the building was also an “amazing” experience for Lt. Col. Tim Walter, a teacher.
As the senior JROTC instructor, he has watched the program grow from 120 kids to what it is today. That growth, he said, was totally by word of mouth, thanks to students.
During open house, which attracted 6,000 people Thursday evening, Walter ran into a JROTC alumna and thanked her for making the program what it is today.
“I told her, ‘You made this something people wanted to join,'” he said. “The students built this. This is for them.”
School Board Chair Gwyn Gittens agreed. In speaking to the crowd, she reminded those gathered that the celebration goes far beyond bricks and concrete.
“Folks, we’re here today not to applaud a building, but what’s going to come out of this building,” she said.