Sneak peek: Gateway High School opens this fall for 2,000 students with amenities, specialty academies

David Dorsey
Fort Myers News-Press

Gateway High School will spring to life this fall following almost two years of construction.

A roundabout on Griffin Road, just south of State Road 82, will funnel students onto the 55.6-acre, $98 million campus, which was built over the past two years on what had been a forest of slash pine trees, one cleared to accommodate a growing population.

The Lee County School District is unveiling its newest high school Wednesday with tours and gave The News-Press a sneak peek Monday.

The school has a capacity of 2,000 students but was built with expandability for the future as needed.

Two showstopper pieces flank the school’s entrance, the “black box theater” to the right and the gymnasium to the left.

Gone from most of the existing high schools are the echo-chamber acoustics inside the gym.

“They have more acoustical insulation in here,” said Ryan Crete, the senior project manager for Suffolk, the lead contractor on the project. “It’s also a hurricane shelter, so the panels are thicker.”

Re’ Cooper, a project engineer for Suffolk Construction, said she took pride in those two buildings, the gym and the theater.

“The gymnasium was special to me,” said Cooper, a 24-year-old Dunbar High School graduate who won a basketball state championship there as a player. “I worked on the contract to bring the wood in. The lines being painted for basketball and for volleyball. It made me want to grab a basketball. Walking into a new gymnasium with a basketball, it’s beautiful.

“With this being my first construction job, you really don’t know what you’re expecting. And then you just have a sense of pride, that other people will be able to feel joy in that space.”

Related:Dunbar High graduate overcomes challenges, manages Gateway High construction

And:Lee district aims to fill up soon-to-open schools, build more to address East Zone growth

The theater has 900 seats, most of which can be pulled back, giving the room multi-purpose capability.

The school can lease the space for special events as a revenue stream, Crete said.

The cafeteria and the rest of the school have touch-free water fountains and bottle-filling stations, features added to the design after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Gateway High School's Carpentry Academy classroom is nearing completion and will be ready for students in the fall of 2021.

A long hallway inside appeared to be near the length of a football field, branching off to classrooms on either side of it.

The school has a media center instead of a library. It has just under 280,000 square feet of space under air conditioning, about the size of one and a half Walmart stores.

Principal Neketa Watson, who is from Mississippi and spent five years as the principal at Lehigh Acres Middle School, said she was excited to be leaving portable buildings behind for a campus almost two years after her July 2019 hiring.

Watson spent some of that time touring other high schools and technical colleges throughout Florida to gather ideas and input for her own school.

“What I did was research,” Watson said. “The teachers are excited as well.”

Gateway High has several specialty programs on campus, including academies for aspiring carpenters, veterinarians, nurses and cybersecurity specialists.

The cybersecurity academy means the construction of a computer server separate from the school district’s server, Crete said, so students can attempt to hack – and prevent hacks – from happening.

The Gateway Eagles sports teams, as they will be called, will wear black and gold uniform colors. Behind the school on the east side of the campus are two multipurpose fields for football, soccer and lacrosse teams and a baseball and softball field. The school also has a weight room that would be the envy of any high school football coach.

The school has 95 classrooms.

“I’m just excited to prepare students, not only for college, but to go straight into their careers,” Watson said.

The construction of Gateway High gave Cooper an opportunity to learn the nuances of managing large projects at a young age.

The gym at Gateway High School will double as a hurricane shelter.

As soon as construction finished, Suffolk Construction dispatched Cooper to Washington, D.C., where she is overseeing the renovation of the Children’s National Research Facility.

No matter how far she progresses in the construction industry, Cooper said she would always look back at Gateway High as her first big project.

“I just want to say that my team and the contractors on the project were amazing,” Cooper said. “I could ask questions. And they trusted me to perform. And they knew if I didn’t know something that I would ask the question. This project showed me so many different aspects of construction because it’s a school. And there are so many different things in a school. You’ve got athletic fields. Football, softball, baseball.

"You have three stories for the main academic building. You’ve got the gymnasium and the black box theater with a catwalk. You just really got to see it come to life. Wow.”

Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).