For those of you who weren’t living in the New Tampa area when Paul R. Wharton High and Louis Benito Middle School opened in August of 1997, you may be unaware that high school-aged kids living in New Tampa in the mid-1990s were originally bused to King High on N. 50th St., a 10-mile trip for kids living in Tampa Palms and a 12-mile trek for those, like my family, who were living in Hunter’s Green — the two largest communities in the New Tampa area at the time.
I remember attending Hillsborough School Board meetings in 1996, trying to find out when High School BBB and Middle School AA (as they were first known) would open in the New Tampa area.
Once it was determined that both schools would open for the start of the 1997-98 school year, the School Board accepted input from the community to help name the two schools. But, despite the best efforts of yours truly and other local activists at the time, neither school would be named for the area in which they were located.
In fact, “New Tampa High” never made it to what the School Board said were its top-four choices for the school ultimately named for former School District administrator Paul R. Wharton (photo), although “Northeast High” was the fourth highest vote-getter.
As for Benito, “New Tampa Middle School” did make the School Board members’ final four, but ultimately finished fourth in their strange point-tallying system. Instead, the school was named for Louis Benito, the former owner of one of the Tampa Bay area’s largest advertising agencies and popular civic activist who had passed away a few years earlier.
I also attended the School Board meeting in December 1996, when long-time Ben Hill Middle School principal Mitch Muley was named as the first-ever principal at Wharton and former Eisenhower Middle School teacher and assistant principal Lewis Brinson was named the opening day principal at Benito.
These were exciting times for me, as having a local high school and middle school meant that my sons, who were both at Hunter’s Green Elementary at the time, would be able to walk to Benito from our Hunter’s Green home and would be living less than two miles up Bruce B. Downs Blvd. from their high school.
I remember touring both schools shortly before they opened and visiting them on the first day of school and feeling nothing but happiness and pride. I believed that having the schools in our area would help New Tampa continue to grow, would help increase our property values and would provide me, as the owner and editor of the Neighborhood News, with new sources of news for my still-young (I had only owned it for 3-1/2 years at the time), but growing publication — and all of those things did (thankfully) come true.
Considering that high school football wasn’t a big deal where I grew up in Long Island, NY (especially because my high school team was so bad), I could picture being part of the big crowds for Florida’s famous “Friday Night Lights,” at the packed gym for not only boys but girls basketball (which I never had growing up), pep rallies and so much more — all of which also came to fruition.
And, even though there also definitely were some growing pains, especially at Wharton, which opened with a super-high percentage of kids on free and reduced lunch because of desegregation-forced busing, for me, the school has been a consistent source of pride for the last quarter of a century.
And, although this issue primarily focuses on Wharton, it’s not because Benito wasn’t also very good to my sons and our community — because it was and still is — it’s because we got invited to (and were happy to attend) the 25th anniversary celebration held at Wharton on Nov. 4 (see pgs. 4-5), but heard nothing about a similar event at Benito. If we somehow missed such a celebration, or if one is still coming up, please email me at ads@NTNeighborhoodNews.com and we will try to show New Tampa’s original middle school some love, too.