LARGO — As any 17-year-old, Oishieka Moitra has big dreams for her future, such as traveling the world and studying genetics.
Being in the first class to graduate from an International Baccalaureate program at Largo High School was never one of them, but with “a leap of faith,” Moitra said she has found a home.
“I really resisted it at first, but I think everyone here was a little uncertain coming in because of the misconceptions,” Moitra said. “We’ve really had to stick together and we’ve really gotten to know each other on a deeper level.”
After two years of uncertainty and hard work, the 48 juniors in Largo High School’s first class of IB students reached a milestone Wednesday night — receiving gold pins symbolizing the halfway point of their rigorous academic coursework. And they heard from speakers about the work that lies ahead for students and the school.
Largo High, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in March, wasn’t always associated with academic excellence.
It was a D-rated school when it started an IB program in 2011. Parents worried for the safety of their children. Students called it “Larghetto High,” sometimes as a term of affection and other times as a jab. The first IB class of ninth- and 10th-graders, who are now juniors and seniors completing college-level coursework along with their regular high school requirements, signed up for the tougher pre-IB classes without knowing even if the program would be approved by the International Baccalaureate Organization.
It was a program built on trust, said assistant principal and IB coordinator Adam Lane. Now the students have grown into active school leaders, impacting their peers and community perceptions of the school.
“Our IB classrooms are spread out through the entire campus, and these kids are incredibly involved, they’re in every single sport, so everybody knows them,” Lane said. “The more people that come in, the more people that leave going, ‘Those are just nasty rumors.’ I truly believe that bad reputation is gone.”
For the first time in its history, Largo High received an A grade for the 2011-12 school year, when the IB students were freshmen and sophomores, and slipped to a B for the 2012-13 school year, Lane said. Three years ago, the school had the lowest graduation rate in the county.
“Academically, our school has really improved because we’ve started offering tutoring to help our classmates out and clubs for people that like academic activities,” said Matthew Eyer, 17, who started a math honors society and science honors society this school year with his friend, Alec Emser, also 17.
“It’s not like IB is completely separated from everyone else at the school, either,” Emser said. “We may not be in the same classes, but these are our friends. We still eat lunch together, we’re still in the same band and clubs after school, and at the end of the day we’re all Largo High.”
The program has about 150 students, and 273 have applied for next school year. That number isn’t much lower than the 358 who applied for the IB program at Palm Harbor University High and the 475 who applied at St. Petersburg High, which offered the first IB program in the state in 1983.
The pinning ceremony and the rising application numbers were huge accomplishments for the program, Lane said, but the bigger indicator will come when the students take their final IB exams next May. Those scores will not only be compared with St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor, but other IB programs around the world.
The program’s success is important as the school district works to become more competitive with charter schools, private schools and other programs of choice that could funnel away money from public schools, Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego said.
During his 16 months in Pinellas, Grego has worked to increase course offerings for students, from career education to rigorous academic programs, often putting in new programs to attract top students and teachers at schools where students are struggling.
Next school year, a Cambridge Pre-Advanced Certificate of International Education program will open at Pinellas Park Middle, a D school, while an “engineering gateway to technology” program will begin at Azalea Middle, an F-rated school.
Teachers believe it’s a philosophy that works.
“There have always been great students at this school, but I think bringing an IB program here has just given them more opportunities to grow, and the teachers, too,” said Kathryn Olivero, a traditional and IB Spanish teacher who has worked at Largo High for 10 years.
“I think we’re making our public schools completely comparable with privates or charters, but I’ve never wanted to leave and work somewhere else because of how supportive the district is connecting all teachers to new training and ideas.”
Grego said he knew placing an IB program at Largo High was “a safe bet.” The next bet will be expanding middle school and primary school IB programs, he said.
“As a superintendent, there’s no prouder day,” Grego said before shaking the hand of each student as they received their pins.