TAMPA — It began during informal lunches where Chamberlain High School alumni wondered what they could do to help improve the school.
It grew into planning meetings where diverse groups — alumni, faculty, students and community stakeholders — began to dream big.
It has evolved into the inaugural Chamberlain High School Legacy Gala: "Bridging the Legacy — Fostering the Future'' on Saturday.
"We want to lift the academic prospects for Chamberlain because many of us remember when it was the premiere high school on the north side of town,'' said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who graduated from Chamberlain in 1984 and has worked closely with Hillsborough County School Board member Cindy Stuart to launch the event.
"With the changing demographics of the county, Chamberlain has slipped a bit," Castor said. "We point to our high school days and the support from teachers and families that put us on the path to success. Now it's our responsibility to do that for others, many of whom don't have the same opportunities we had.''
Chamberlain received a grade of D from the Florida Department of Education in 2016, a drop from C in 2015. Incoming Chamberlain principal Jake Russell, hired after a 12-year stint at Sickles, said he's committed to the school's improvement and he's enthusiastic about the Legacy Gala.
"The concept is outstanding,'' Russell said. "I'm new, so I'm catching up, but I already know that Chamberlain is a place with great pride and great tradition.''
Kathy Castor will be joined by two other Chamberlain alums as keynote speakers— former Tampa Police Department Chief Jane Castor (class of 1977) and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan (class of 1985).
"Chamberlain has a great deal of impact in shaping me into the person that I am,'' said Jane Castor, who was a basketball and volleyball star during the infancy of girls high-school sports in Hillsborough County before becoming a scholarship athlete at the University of Tampa.
"As our city has grown, there has been inevitable change. I don't think you ever lose that school spirit and love for your school. Chamberlain will always be my high school.''
But as northwest Tampa's suburbs underwent explosive growth, bringing new area high schools at Gaither, Sickles, Alonso and Steinbrenner, it chipped away at Chamberlain.
The school opened in 1956 and enrollment once surpassed 3,000. It now hovers in the 1,750 range.
"When Chamberlain opened, it was considered a rural school and now it's more of an inner-city school,'' said Legacy Gala committee member Erik Youngs, director of Chamberlain's Culinary Operations Academy and the student-run Outback Cafe restaurant. "We've seen a change in socio-economic status.
"But I can tell you in my 15 years here, it's an amazing place. We want people to know what Chamberlain is all about. I think we need to get the community more involved because it will be better for everyone.''
Hagan, a former Chamberlain baseball player who became a student-athlete at the University of Florida, said that with all the northwest Tampa growth, "in some ways, Chamberlain got left behind.''
He said he still "gets a good feeling inside'' when he hears about the Chiefs winning a big sports contest. And he loves learning about academic and extra-curricular accomplishments from current students.
"It's a cyclical thing with a lot of our schools,'' Hagan said. "It's an extremely challenging balancing act with limited resources to address the new growth and maintain our existing schools.
"Chamberlain gave me a great foundation and fundamental skills to go to college, then become a political leader in our community. I want Chamberlain to thrive and I want it to have a successful culture.''
At the Legacy Gala, the program will open with the Honor Guard from Hillsborough County Public Schools Security Services presenting the colors, while music will be provided by Chamberlain students. The Chamberlain band will be conducted by Robert Price Jr., son of the school's first band director — the man who wrote the Chamberlain alma mater.
A scavenger hunt is planned that will highlight many famous Chamberlain alumni. Look for model Lauren Hutton, baseball great Steve Garvey, actress Liz Vassey and Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden, among others.
Culinary students will offer appetizers.
"Most people are going to have nostalgic feelings about their high school,'' Youngs said. "What I've found is people who went to Chamberlain have such pride about our traditions here.
"Everyone has a homecoming. But at Chamberlain, we have the 'Dance of the Green Corn.' The girls make their own dresses and do traditional dances. We name the 'Highest Chief' and the 'Fairest Princess.' There are things here so unique to Chamberlain, traditions you don't see anywhere else.''
In a jump-start for the Legacy Gala, the committee held a "Day of Work'' to spruce up the school in late March. More than 60 volunteers spread mulch, picked up trash, painted parking poles and driveway posts, while getting help from various Chamberlain clubs, such as Tribe, DECA and Beta Club, along with Culinary and Veterinary Assisting students.
Pitching in with rakes, shovels, paintbrushes and trash bags were administrators plus faculty members from the science, veterinary assisting, English and culinary programs.
"No question, Chamberlain people have a lot of spirit,'' Russell said.
The gala wants to spotlight that spirit for the community. In that way, even with all the growth and changes, Chamberlain's legacy can continue.
Youngs said it could be the start of something big.
"This isn't going to be a 'show up, give money and go home' kind of thing,'' Youngs said. "We want this to be a living, ongoing reunion and celebration of Chamberlain. We want the community and alumni to be a part of it now and forever.''
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]
>>IF YOU GO
Chamberlain High School Legacy Gala
The event will be held from 6-9 p.m. on Saturday (April 29) at the school, 9401 N Boulevard. Tickets are $25 per person. For more information, visit the CHS Legacy Gala web site at chamberlain.mysdhc.org and click on the Community tab.