West Orange High School, in Winter Garden, is celebrating four decades of education in West Orange County. The community is invited to a ceremony and reception Feb. 8.
It was 40 years ago that two high school rivals — the Lakeview Red Devils and the Ocoee Cardinals — were brought together at a new high school in Winter Garden and the roughly 1,500 students became the West Orange Warriors. Lakeview and Ocoee became junior high schools, and the high-schoolers had to learn to maneuver around the windowless, circular classroom buildings and the two Commons (the name for the orange-and-blue and yellow-and-green cafeterias).
The new 210,000-square-foot school, built for a capacity of 2,126 students, wasn't completed for the beginning of the 1975-76 school year, so the first-year Warriors started their classes at Lakeview. (The junior high students at Lakeview and Ocoee attended double sessions at Ocoee High.)
West Orange students began classes at the new campus on Beulah Road once construction was completed in January 1976 at a cost of $6.5 million. It educated students from Winter Garden, Ocoee, Oakland, Windermere and the Dr. Phillips area of Orlando.
Many of the teachers transferred from Lakeview, Ocoee and Evans high schools.
Since then, there have been 10 principals (and one acting principal), four decades of Homecoming kings and queens, 40 yearbooks full of memories, a number of different Warrior mascot logos, approximately 7,200 days of classes (and roughly 43,200 hours of class time), more than 200 home football games, and a softball and two bowling state championships.
Now, the high school — always known for its sense of community and spirit — is getting ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary with a population of more than 4,050 students.
West Orange’s administration is making plans for a celebration Feb. 8, one that will include alumni and the community. Among the plans are a ceremony in the auditorium and tours of the new campus.
REMEMBERING RAYMOND SCREWS
The school was less than two years old when tragedy struck the campus.
On Dec. 12, 1977, WOHS Assistant Principal Roosevelt Holloman Jr. walked into Principal Ray Screws’ office, where an exchange of words took place, and Holloman shot and killed Screws. He was found guilty of first-degree murder the following summer and given life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
According to news articles, Screws had called a meeting with his three top administrative aides and confronted Holloman, 41, about allegations of misconduct with a 16-year-old female student.
The meeting took place about 30 minutes after school had let out for the day.
An argument ensued, and Holloman, who had entered the meeting carrying a metal box, pulled a chrome-plated revolver from the box and fired at Screws, hitting him in the neck. The other two administrators, Assistant Principal Tony Krapf and Dean of Students Emma Brown, ran from the office as Holloman fired three more times.
Brown warned others to “run for your life; Mr. Holloman has a gun.”
Screws staggered from his office clutching his chest and collapsed on the floor of the outer office. Faculty members and a custodian attempted to administer CPR to keep Screws breathing. Emergency medical personnel from West Orange Memorial Hospital in Winter Garden rushed Screws to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 51 and had a career in education that spanned 35 years.
Dr. Linton Deck, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, visited the school immediately upon hearing of the shooting and said he was closing the school for an indefinite period of time. It was reopened Jan. 3.
Screws' memory is carried on in the football field that bears his name. A dedication plaque that hung inside the entrance to the old campus now hangs outside the Student Services building.
His is also the first name on the Fallen Warriors memorial that stood in the courtyard near the entrance to the old campus and now greets students as they walk from the parking lot into the courtyard. The monument honors students and faculty who have died while attending or employed at West Orange.
THROUGH THE YEARS
West Orange is a school full of traditions. Annually, seniors get the privilege of painting their parking space. In the school’s infancy, students also took paint and brushes to the underside of Florida’s Turnpike on Beulah Road, splashing it with messages and names.
There are weeklong Homecoming festivities that include a parade through downtown Winter Garden, and the band performs in the Winter Garden and Ocoee Christmas parades. Fall football games against Dr. Phillips, Olympia and Ocoee high schools are played for the rights to an orange crate, fence and shield, respectively.
For a number of years the school hosted the West Orange Relay for Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
The gymnasium also served as a Red Cross shelter after a tornado cut a destructive path through Winter Garden near midnight Feb. 22, 1998.
Junior high schools were switched to middle schools in 1988 and ninth-graders were now considered high-schoolers. In 1994, West Orange's Ninth-Grade Campus was built on Warrior Road on adjoining property to the southwest. It was closed for a few years and reopened in 2009 to alleviate overcrowding on the main campus. It also housed Tildenville Elementary students in 2005-06 while their new school was being built and was used temporarily while construction of the new WOHS building took place.
The Orange County School Board voted to replace its two campuses that were built in this outdated style: West Orange and Apopka. In 2007, a new West Orange High was built on the former parking lot, and the old campus location essentially became the new parking lot.
Before the original campus was torn down, photography teacher Ken Steffens asked students to document it in color and black-and-white photographs. The pictures were displayed in an exhibit at the Edgewater Hotel and are now at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation. When Steffens died in 2011, Melanie Goodman-Smith became the photography instructor. A 1989 West Orange graduate, she was a former student of Steffens and president of the photography club.
An artificial turf field was installed for football at a cost of approximately $500,000, and construction for the field was completed in 2006. The artificial turf was replaced last summer.
West Orange made state history — and national news — in 2013 when the student body voted Travjuan “Bubba” Hunter and Semone Adkins as Homecoming king and queen. They are thought to be the first pair with Down syndrome to be selected to receive the crowns in Florida. Hunter was in the news again last September when the school and community mourned his death at age 22.
In June 2014, the school’s baseball facility became home to the Winter Garden Squeeze, a new team in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
This school year, WOHS went completely digital and all students receive instruction and do their work on laptops.
As West Orange County has grown, the student population has increased, creating overcrowded conditions in the hallways and classrooms. In 1987, Dr. Phillips High opened, followed by Olympia High in 2001 and Ocoee High in 2005.
A fourth West Orange relief school to the south is slated to open in the fall of 2017 near County Road 535 and Ficquette Hancock Road. Neighbors in the West Windermere Rural Settlement fought the school, but in the end, it was decided to put it here with stipulations including a capacity of 2,776 students, canopy buffering trees and an off-site athletic stadium.
The school is expected to open for ninth- through 11th-graders for the first year.
Thirteen members of the staff and administration at West Orange High School were once students there and have returned as employees: Tammi Lewis Thompson (1978), Sandra Armbruster (1979), Neddie Woods Watkins (1980), Melanie Goodman-Smith (1989), Andrea D’Amore Shrader (1989), Jennifer Dailer (1994), Chris Boston (1995), Bill Baker (1996), Robert Brannan (1996), Toby Hurst (1998), Gene Thompson (2003), Emily Heckman (2005) and Katherine Baker (2006).
The West Orange Marching Band, led by Kenneth Boyd, is nearly 300 students strong and consistently receives superior ratings in competitions. It has performed in events such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City; the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington, D.C.; and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago; as well as a USF&G Sugar Bowl pregame show.
The school’s first band director was Harold Cooper, who served in that role for 23 years. That first band had nearly 150 performers. Cooper died of cancer in 1998, but not before the community rallied around him to give him 12 days of Christmas: 12 grand finales, 11 all-time favorites, 10 sirens blaring, nine ladies kicking, eight maids marching, seven wands swinging, six Auburn Tigers, five colleagues rhyming, four calling friends, three French horns, two generations caroling and a band in a pear tree.
The auditorium was also named in Cooper’s memory. The southeast concession stand at the football field is called Cooper’s Corner, as well.
Like the band, West Orange’s choral and theater departments repeatedly win outstanding ratings at district- and state-level festivals.
The advanced choirs, under the direction of Jeff Redding, won top honors in 2005 at a competition in Verona, Italy.
The theater department, with Ken Rush as director, has received year-to-year first-place honors in the district thespian competition, and “Children of a Lesser God” was named the best play in seven states at the South Eastern Theatre Conference. The department has also been asked on several occasions to perform at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Three of Rush’s original plays have received state recognition.
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].