South Walton High School had just 300 students and 32 teachers when they first opened their doors in 2002. In the past 15 years, the school has grown to roughly 800 and has become one of the best performing high schools in the state.

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Prior to 2002, Walton County had no high school south of Choctawhatchee Bay.

When students left middle school, the choices were to attend Freeport High School or drive to a different county.

That changed in August 2002 when South Walton High School opened its doors.

"We had three primary challenges in opening the school," said then-School Board member Darrell Barnhill. "We had to find a principal with the skills to open a new school, hire the right instructional staff to fit our unique community and implement a sports program as soon as possible. The School Board thought a school was needed down here, but administrative staff did not. We were told by staff that there would only be 12 students when we opened. I believe we had a few more than that."

Barnhill was the first School Board member to be elected from south of the bay.

The first principal at South Walton was Marissa Benton.

"I heard so many comments saying we would never fill this school up," said Felita Asteinza, who was one of the first 32 teachers and is still there.

That first year presented its challenges.

"The school was not quite ready and we had no rosters," Asteinza said. "We had to write down students' names."

But what was lacking and not yet in place was made up for in enthusiasm.

"That first year it was very exciting to be in a brand-new building," Administrative Assistant Barb Stratton said. "We had a lot of new faces and it was exciting to be a part of. We had no school traditions. Everything was brand new. We had the kids involved in writing a fight song and to come up with cheers to find our own identity."

Stratton transferred to South Walton from Bay Middle School. The district closed Bay Middle and combined it with the high school to help fill up the building that first year. Even with the middle schoolers, that first year had fewer than 300 students, but that was more than 12.

"We were excited about the building and moving over," said bookkeeper Kit Starbuck, who also moved over from Bay. "We became like a family. We were like a big team to make this wonderful, and Marissa Benton was gung-ho."

There were also challenges with cohesiveness.

"We had kids coming from all over, and so many were coming here for just one year that one of our biggest challenges was getting them to be a cohesive student body," Stratton said. "It was a struggle at first. It took time to work together because they were from different areas and didn't know each other. We really had to convince the senior class to have a prom, but we finally convinced them it would be something they would remember."

It was so difficult that only a handful of tickets to prom had been sold when it was two weeks away. But during the last week, 100 tickets sold for the event held at the new Embassy Suites. Parents, teachers and students came together to decorate for the event that turned out to be a success.

Benton retired after three years and was succeeded by Mark Ewing, then David Preast and then Alexis Tibbetts, who has been principal for three years.

"We have experienced tremendous growth in these 15 years," said Asteinza, who is a world language teacher and established the school's Hispanic Honor Society in 2003.

That first year, the only foreign language offered was Spanish. The school now offers Spanish, Chinese and AP Spanish literature. Sign language and 27 AP courses also are offered.

"We have gone from barely being able to offer any AP classes to this," Asteinza said. "We've gone from being the little school that's never going to make it to the envy of the state."

The school is now adding 10 rooms to meet the needs of the growing student population.

"We're a lot bigger now," Stratton noted.

"Every inch is being used for classes and storage closets as offices," she added. "We're bursting at the seams."

Right now there are 781 students registered to start school when doors open in August, and Stratton expects there will be more than 800 by the start of school.

There are now 49 teachers.

In addition to growth, one of the biggest changes Stratton has seen is the outstanding school spirit.

"Our kids are very proud to be Seahawks," she said. "We offer more AP classes than any other school, and our kids are accepted to colleges and universities throughout the country. And our athletic program is ranked at top in the state of Florida in 1-A."