This year, "back to school" will mean much more to students at Sweetwater High School in National City.
After 91 years, the high school, which is the second oldest in San Diego, is in the process of finishing up a drastic renovation.
The new three-story building stands gleaming in the middle of Highland Avenue, and its halls are nearly silent as few students walk from class to class. However, that will change Saturday, as the campus will come alive with a grand opening celebration for students, alumni and the public.
A Long Time Coming
General censuses say the new eight-square-mile campus couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Sweetwater is the center of National City,” said National City Mayor Ron Morrison. “All of our elected officials here graduated from Sweetwater High School, but when I graduated from here, this place was old at that point.”
School principal Roman Del Rosario said the facelift was "exactly what the school community needed."
“This school has so much history, and it’s in the hearts of the students and alumni," Del Rosario said, "but the truth is it was rundown, and this new campus just means the world to everyone."
The project, funded by Propsition O, came in on time and under budget, said John McCain, president of Sweetwater’s Board of Trustees.
The nearly 3,000 students who will return to the campus this fall will see a completely redesigned campus that includes 34 new classrooms, a library and public-accessible theater.
Classrooms will come with equipment such as a smart board that resembles a large iPad and microphones so that every student in the spacious classrooms can hear teachers.
“I really like it,” said teacher Angela Zagami. “It does a great job for the students and the environment will help them to do better, I think.”
The new equipment goes beyond just gadgets, though.
Inside each classroom, the windows are optimized to grab more natural light, and a system decreases the amount of carbon dioxide so that students remain alert during class.
Looking to the Past
While technology might have been an important aspect in creating the campus, it’s the school’s nod to history that speaks volumes.
“It’s an amazing, amazing change," Morrison said. "You look at this and you realize …that it’s an amazing place for education."
Morrison added that although there was a huge amount of pride in the school, "not many people shed tears when the old building went down."
Still, some of the old building's objects, and their stories, remain.
On Friday, Del Rosario walked through the school entrance and looked up, pointing toward a small, rustic, red lamp hanging at the door from two ceiling chains.
They call it the "Lamp of Knowledge," and it’s been with the school since the beginning.
“Any alumni who went here will remember that lamp," Del Rosario said.
History also finds itself inside the newly remodeled library where an alumni-made painting rests on an off-white painted wall. The city loaned the piece to the school after it sat in storage for years without use, Del Rosairo. said
“The alumni love the building,” said McCain, who added that they were invited to several community meetings to submit their input. “The old 1920 building had some of the same architecture as this new one, and we modernized so we could honor the past but bring us into the future.”
Sean Sampell, a 16-year-old Sweetwater High junior, expects students to take notice of the new campus.
“I’m sure the first person that graffitis anywhere is going to be made an example of,” Sampbell said. "People will look around and see the trophy cabinets and say, ‘I want to fill that cabinets.'”
Celebrating the Future
At 5 p.m. Saturday, alumni will return for a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony, and ogarnizers are expecting a crowd.
“We’ve got nearly 2,000 Facebook RSVPs,” McCain said. “One of the neat things about this school is that it’s the only one in National City, so if you grew up here, then you went to Sweetwater High School.”
During the event, the class of 1956 will present a replica of the Lamp of Knowledge to go along with other activities, including music, entertainment and food.
While thousands of students will study at the campus for years to come, for others, such as high school senior Kimberly Sainz, the ceremony and upcoming year will be bittersweet.
“Being my last year in senior high, it’s kind of sad,” Sainz said. “But it’s actually an honor to be in the building.”
The campus upgrade has given the school such accomodations as a new library, a spacious cafeteria, and glass windows with a Sweetwater logo visible to passing commuters on Highland Avenue.
But even more, it's given students something special that can't be drawn on an engineer's blueprint.
“This building has brought many kids pride and has given them respect as people," Sainz said, "and that’s a really big motivation.”