The Long Awaited Modernization Program is Finally Underway at the City’s Iconic High School. With a Little Help from Its Friends
By Doreen Hemlock//Photography by Jonathan Dann
Jackie Gross-Kellogg used to wince when picking up her daughter from practice as a Gablettes dancer at Coral Gables Senior High School. She’d drive past a chain-link fence into a rutted parking lot, wait at a run-down building, and then pass a garbage collection zone on her way out. “As a parent, it depressed me,” Gross-Kellogg recalls. “I had to do this mantra all the time: It’s not the building or the maintenance. It’s what they’re learning and the friends they’re making. And her coach was amazing.”
Gross-Kellogg got involved at the school and began to see its “hidden beauty,” while understanding its budget constraints. Today she’s hopeful, thanks to a nearly $26 million modernization program getting underway and plans by community supporters to create a $5 million endowment fund.
Nearly 70 years after opening its doors, Gables High is starting a renaissance. Some older structures off Riviera Drive are being replaced with a more modern, taller building. New air conditioning systems are being installed. Hurricane windows are to be added. And the nonprofit Friends of Gables High is starting an endowment to pay for such student needs as printers and other classroom equipment. A new coat of paint already signals the launch of the biggest upgrade in a generation for a school now serving 3,000-plus students. By 2022, Principal Adolfo Costa hopes the campus’ outside will more closely match the quality he’s been nurturing inside, where nearly 90 percent of seniors graduate, some heading to Ivy League universities. “We’ll be able to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak, in terms of having a nice, shiny, bright, beautiful and efficient building,” says Costa, proudly dressed in the school’s crimson and gray colors.
Budget Realities and the Long Wait for Funds
To understand how a school that was once a jewel in Coral Gables’ landscape became so run-down, consider the lengthy funding process for the latest capital improvements. Both state and local groups are involved. In 2012, the Miami-Dade County School Board approved some $11 million for the project as part of a larger General Obligation Bond issue, but the school placed close to last on the list to start construction. By 2018, the School Board allotted $15 million more, recognizing that initial funds were insufficient to complete the work.
“The longer we waited, it got to the point that our expenses became greater than what was budgeted,” says Gross-Kellogg, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association, grateful for the extra help. She and others say school board member Mari Tere Rojas has been especially vocal in securing the funds.
Florida’s public schools have been coping with financial headaches for years, their teachers among the nation’s lowest paid. Miami-Dade feels the brunt, as the largest public school district in the state and fourth-largest nationwide. Traditional public schools also face growing competition for funds from newer charter schools, which often are run by for-profit companies and can charge tuition. And some say South Florida hardly gets its due in Tallahassee.
June Morris hadn’t realized how much that funding squeeze had hurt her alma mater until she saw a presentation at City Hall last year by Sam Joseph, chair of the city’s school and community relations committee. She recoiled at some photos shown. “I saw mold, weeds, chain-link fences and a dilapidated campus,” says Morris, a past chair of the city’s economic development board. “I wanted to do something about it.”
A former TV journalist with deep Gables roots – her mom, Dorothy Thomson, was a former mayor and her husband, Allen Morris, is a leading real estate developer – Morris began mobilizing school friends, business leaders and others to act. “The public school system was the invention of America. It is part of our democracy. It aims to give everyone a chance at a solid education,” she says. Studying in a subpar environment detracts from students’ ability to learn at the highest level and undermines the community, she insists. “This is our namesake high school for the City Beautiful. We should have a beautiful high school.”
A Grassroots Effort to Help Fund Students’ Needs
Morris and some colleagues – including alumni such as chair Darrell Payne and former city commissioner Jeannett Slesnick – formed the nonprofit Friends of Gables High to help the school seek government funds when possible and to raise private funds to supplement student needs. She hosted some 150 people at a kick-off event at her home this past March, resulting in an initial $10,000 gift to the school for mini-grants. That cash has already funded faculty requests for a printer for the journalism department, microphones for drama students, and a coral lab tank for science classes. Says Morris: “We want to do little things to show our support for the students now, and bigger things later.”
Within the next few years, the group aims to create an unusually large endowment for a Florida public high school: $5 million. Business owner Tom Parker, who moved to Coral Gables in 2015 and has long been a public school supporter, is helping lead the fundraising drive. He sees the effort benefiting the city at large. A better school draws more people to settle in Coral Gables, boosts property values and widens the employee pool – as well as benefiting the students themselves, he says.
“Hiring people from our town is a big deal,” says Parker, president of The Ultimate Umbrella Co. Inc. known as TUUCI. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to make Coral Gables the best high school we can.” He figures a $5 million endowment can produce tens of thousands of dollars in interest yearly to fund student needs, allowing children to spend less time on bake sales and car washes to pay for uniforms and trips, and more time instead on studies and practice.
Focusing on Academics First for Diverse Students
Principal Costa welcomes that help, calling the endowment idea “phenomenal.” He’s the son of a Cuban immigrant who worked construction with his father and heeded his dad’s advice to study hard for a job out of the hot sun. Costa took the helm at Gables High in 2008 when the school had a “C” grade. He focused on boosting academics, taking the school to an “A” rating – though it now holds a “B,” which Costa links partly to frequent changes in grading criteria. In 2013 he earned the Leonard Miller Principal Leadership Award, the state’s top prize for principals, for his hands-on efforts. Among his innovations so far: introducing dual enrollment with Miami-Dade College and Florida International University, and starting the Academy of Finance, now ranked among the nation’s finest. He’s also tripled the number of advanced placement tests students take yearly, helping teens move more easily into college.
Today, Gables High is well-known for two magnet programs, which are competitive to enter: The International Baccalaureate, which welcomes some 200 first year students each year from more than 1,000 applicants; and the Academy of Finance, which accepts some 100 first year students out of more than 400 who apply each year.
The school has one of the most diverse student bodies in Florida, representing dozens of nationalities, mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean. Some 90 percent are classified as minority, mainly Hispanics, including recent arrivals to the United States entering with limited English and requiring special language classes. About 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, based on household income.
“Something a lot of people don’t understand is that these small charter and magnet schools can turn away kids. Gables High doesn’t,” says PTSA president and alum Gross-Kellogg. “For example, the school has more than 500 special needs students, and they can stay until age 22 to get the skills they need. And if openness to students with diverse needs, English learners and others means keeping this school as a ‘B,’ that’s fine with me. I wear that as a badge of honor.”
Renovating the Campus, Complete with a “Tilt-Up Building
Still, the physical plant remains “a challenge,” admits Costa, citing air conditioning as one example. When the school opened in 1950, AC wasn’t standard. Over time, the school added window units and hodge-podge solutions that make the current AC system inefficient and expensive. With new funding, the school is adding a new electric grid and replacing the AC system, among other upgrades.
Overall, the project is designed in phases. This summer, construction is to start on a new two-story classroom building, whose walls will rise in a “tilt-up” process. The new structure will replace two older buildings, known as Six and Seven, making room for more outdoor space for student gatherings. Demolition includes the building that once made Gross-Kellogg wince. The upshot for students: new art labs, kiln room, gymnastics/dance room, computer labs and covered outdoor dining. Parents also will see the parking lot resurfaced, new drainage and new sidewalks.
Of course, more upgrades are needed, advocates say. Friends of Gables High would like better fencing on Le Jeune Road, enhanced sports fields, plus a new music and performing arts center that would open to the courtyard for pep rallies and other events. Gross-Kellogg envisions improvements that would open the sports fields to the community when not in use by students, a program adopted elsewhere that raises cash for facilities and better integrates the school with the city. Costa dreams of adding a building with extra computer labs and gathering areas for students, like student unions at universities.
High school senior Elias Benedith will be gone before the current renovation finishes, but he’s still enthusiastic about the project. Asked what he likes least about Gables High, Benedith pauses and then concedes: “Outdated buildings.” He enjoys reading in the open courtyards, but never dallies by the old, windowless cafeteria or its corridor, which feel like “a cave or tunnel.” In contrast, when studying at Miami-Dade College part time, he finds the environment “more roomy,” made for students who want “to be serious and learn.”
Yet the well-groomed teen is quick to share what he likes best at Gables High: “Diversity,” says Benedith proudly. “That teaches you acceptance, it shows you new ways of seeing things, and that’s key to evolving as a human being.”
Gables High Hall of Famers
Gables High has an impressive list of graduates and Hall of Fame inductees. Yet even its Hall of Fame program has been dormant in recent years because of funding woes. Here are some examples of famous grads:
Janet Reno ’56: The first female Attorney General of the United States, serving 1993-2001 under President Bill Clinton. She was a debating champion and salutatorian at the high school and later was the first woman to serve as state attorney in Florida, elected five times for Miami-Dade County.
Ellen Taaffee Zwilich ’56: The first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. She’s a 1994 inductee into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, won an Arturo Toscanini Music Critics Award and a Guggenheim fellowship, has four Grammy nominations, and has long taught at Florida State University.
William “Bill” Lenoir ’57: An electrical engineer and NASA astronaut. Lenoir held a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from MIT and also taught there. From 1974 to 1976 he was leader of the NASA Satellite Power Team. In 1982, he flew on the first Space Shuttle flight to deploy commercial satellites.
Maxine Clark ’67: Entrepreneur who founded Build-A-Bear Workshop company, creator of the Blueprint4SummerSTL educational app. Born and raised in Coral Gables, the retail executive led Payless Shoes from 1992-96 before setting up her own venture to make customizable stuffed animals.
Winston Scott ’68: A retired Navy captain and NASA astronaut. He flew aboard shuttles Endeavor and Columbia, and later became the executive director of the Florida Space Authority. In high school, he was part of the band and known for his trumpet playing.
Mike Lowell ’92: Former Major League Baseball third baseman and son of Cuban parents. During a 13-year pro career, he played with the New York Yankees, Florida Marlins, and Boston Red Sox. He played baseball for the Cavaliers and met his wife Bertica at school, where she was a member of the Gablettes dance team and later became its coach.