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    Tarpon Springs High rejoices

    With high-fives and hugs all around, principal John Nicely enjoys his return, as do students and faculty.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2002
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    TARPON SPRINGS -- Tarpon Springs High School held its second homecoming celebration of the school year Thursday as students and teachers welcomed principal John Nicely back to the school he left last week.

    "Hi, gentlemen," he said to a group of students in the courtyard before school started. The first bell rang, and he waved the students toward their classes. "All right, got to hurry," he said.

    Some students hugged him, and some chose the high-five or the back-slap. Many of the school's 1,600 students offered their congratulations to Nicely, who was transferred out of the school nine days before for an incident involving a student's transcripts.

    "He must have got hugged by about a million people," said Shea O'Neil, a junior who helped to film Nicely's return for her television production class.

    "It was like the sun came up today," said Lazarus Dawson, a junior.

    "He puts life back in the school," said junior Jared Cobb.

    Students and teachers said the school was disrupted in the week Nicely, 61, was not there. Then, on Wednesday, Superintendent Howard Hinesley reversed his initial decision and allowed the principal to return to Tarpon Springs High for the remainder of the school year.

    "We're lost without our leader," said Mindy Crowther, a fine arts teacher.

    "Everybody was protesting, skipping class, handing out phone numbers," O'Neil said.

    "It hasn't been right. Our school went downhill," said senior Sheena Peake. "When Mr. Nicely's here, the kids don't get into trouble. I think people are going to do their work and go to class."

    "I haven't been able to concentrate on anything," said Cobb, one of 44 people who spoke on Nicely's behalf Tuesday night at a School Board meeting.

    The decision by Hinesley to reconsider Nicely's transfer occurred at that meeting. He said he was influenced by the overwhelming support Nicely had, and ultimately decided to accept a proposal Nicely himself had made to stay at the school through the end of the year. He will have a reprimand placed in his file and will apologize to the colleges that received one student's transcripts.

    The incident in question involved a senior who had earned Bs and Cs in her classes, but was given failing grades under the school's absentee policy, which is stricter than the school district's policy. Students who are absent 10 or more days in a quarter, including excused and unexcused absences, automatically fail their classes but may appeal the failing grades.

    The policy gives the principal the right to waive the failing grades. In this case, Nicely worked out a deal with this student and five others that they could keep the grades they otherwise would have earned in their classes if they had no more unexcused absences through the end of the year.

    With the one student, Nicely allowed her passing grades to be sent to colleges but kept the Fs on her transcript at Tarpon Springs High. The discrepancy between the two sets of grades created a "credibility problem" for the high school and the school district, Hinesley said.

    Nicely said he was grateful for the support he received from students, faculty members, parents and people in the community.

    "Without getting too corny, this is really the greatest school -- how they respond and react to adversity," he said. "The kids learned more about life and how to do things correctly in the past two weeks than they could in six years of book learning."

    In honor of his return, balloons in the school's colors, maroon and white, were tied to a railing outside Nicely's office. A sign that was put up last week that said, "We Love U Mr. Nicely," still hung in the administration building. A plate of brownies, which Nicely said he would try to resist, awaited him on his secretary's desk.

    A week ago, he didn't know if he would ever return to his office on the second floor of the school. After greeting students, he walked up the steps, walkie-talkie in hand, ready for the day to begin.

    "I guess I need to get back to work," he said.

    -- Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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