The new year was in full swing Wednesday on the first day of classes for Righetti, Pioneer Valley and Santa Maria high school students, some of whom witnessed some big changes on campus. 

As the 2,250 students at Righetti filled the hallways, crews continued work on the brand-new $22 million, 38-classroom complex on the west side of campus, where steel framing and concrete pours began last month for the three-story complex, funded by Measure C and matching state funds.

Crews were busy Wednesday digging and compacting dirt and shoring metal beams to establish the first floor, which was formerly an old maintenance building and parking lot.

"We expect this to take about 24 months, hopefully," plant manager Danny Sheridan said. "Construction's been going great, so in a few weeks, you'll really start to see this place taking shape." 

Bernie Rayner, who oversees maintenance at the campus, said that the new complex was definitely the biggest project he's overseen since he first was employed 24 years ago.

"These guys definitely know what they're doing," Rayner said. "It's always exciting to see change take place for the better. Even though school was out for the summer, we never stopped working!" 

The new complex will help accommodate the ever-growing student population, Righetti High School Principal Karen Rotondi said. 

"This is definitely the biggest construction project this school has ever seen in the last 50 years," she said. "This school was originally built to house only about 1,900 kids. Our enrollment is huge this year, about 2,250 students. We're expecting to grow a few hundred in the next few years."

Some teachers have had to share classrooms to accommodate large class sizes, and many had to be shifted out of certain buildings and moved into others, Rotondi said. Because of an enrollment spike, Righetti High also hired several new teachers, four of whom are alumni. 

Counselor Eric Blanco, Class of 1992, remembered how different the school was when he was a student, and looks forward to the completion of the project to help accommodate 21st century learning for students. 

"We spoke with incoming freshman at orientation last week, telling them that we hope they'll be able to take advantage of the new building before they graduate," he said. "It's exciting for all of us to be a part of this." 

Goals for the campus expansion aim to increase permanent classroom capacity, eliminate portable classrooms, add new, advanced technology and incorporate many learning tools to embody 21st century learning. 

Career Technical Education classes will offer students a variety of choices, including hospitality, agriculture, culinary arts, tourism and health care fields.

A large walk-in freezer is also being installed to hold food for more than 2,000 students and the staff. Portable classroom roofs are being replaced and energy-saving lighting is also being installed. 

Around 10 a.m., Tony Payne was instructing his second group of students. A Class of 1995 graduate, it was his first day teaching at Righetti.

"(The) campus has changed so much since I was attending 20 years ago," he said.

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"When I first went to school here, it was an open campus -- no gates, locks, nothing. The new construction will definitely better serve the students for the next several years." 

Just to the left of the construction site are the agriculture classroom buildings where freshman and seniors were getting acclimated to the bustling groundwork going on for the slated complex. 

FFA/agriculture teacher Miguel Guerra spoke to his freshman class about how the classroom they were sitting in used to be a weight room long ago. A veteran educator who's been teaching at Righetti for over 30 years, Guerra has also seen the campus grow and change to accommodate the growing number of students. 

"This new building is going to make things better for you guys to get a better education so you can move on in four years," he told his class. "By your junior year, you'll be moving into the new complex." 

Freshman Drew Korosac, who signed up for ag-science after his longtime experience with 4-H, said the brand-new 38-room complex was "necessary, so that students can have a great time learning in the future." 

"Everyone has a subject they care about in high school, so this new construction is important," he said. 

Senior Haylie Acosta, who was in her viticulture class next door, said that although she was sad to be missing out on the brand-new complex, she was nonetheless happy for future students who'll be able to enjoy their Righetti experience even more. 

"When I first saw the groundbreaking last year, I was really sad," she said, "because I'll be gone by the time they finish. But at least it'll give a lot more opportunities for all future students." 

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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