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Innovator picked to lead school

Joe Clifford, West Hernando Middle's assistant principal, is named principal.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- When Joe Clifford arrived at West Hernando Middle in 1999, the school already had a reputation in the county as a mecca for hands-on learning and innovative methods.

Quickly, as assistant principal, Clifford bought into West Hernando's "Dream Extreme" vision and even began expanding its reach, spearheading an effort last year to create an ecology center on the Weeki Wachee River, which is due to open in early 2003.

Now, Clifford is getting the chance to lead West Hernando's vision from the principal's chair.

On Thursday, superintendent Wendy Tellone chose him to succeed principal Ken Pritz, who started West Hernando on its innovative path six years ago.

Recently, Tellone made Pritz her executive director of school services, a district office job overseeing all of the county's academic programs.

Clifford, 51, has worked in Hernando County schools for the past 23 years.

He taught troubled students in alternative education programs, was a guidance counselor at J.D. Floyd Elementary, Springstead High and Moton Elementary, and was an assistant principal at Powell Middle School before moving to West Hernando.

"I'm honored that the superintendent has confidence in me to choose me to lead this wonderful school," Clifford said Thursday.

"I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity at West Hernando Middle School because this is a school community filled with outstanding teachers, fantastic support staff and some of the best kids in the county."

In recent years, West Hernando students have helped design and build a wooden foot bridge, an aviary and a prairie dog habitat. Clifford vowed to continue such hands-on projects.

He also said he would continue one of the school's more controversial practices: giving kids cash rewards for high scores on the FCAT. That is just one part of West Hernando's wide-ranging student incentive program, which Clifford wants to expand.

Clifford was one of seven candidates for the job. A 13-member committee interviewed them all on Wednesday and ranked the top three: Clifford, Central High assistant principal Betty Harper and former Hernando Christian Academy administrator Martin Ratcliffe.

Tellone, who as superintendent has the ultimate responsibility for hiring principals, said that -- barring a glaring weakness she spots in a candidate -- she intends to follow staff recommendations on most principal appointments.

After meeting Thursday with Clifford for two hours, Tellone gave him the job. She described Clifford as someone who is passionate to serve students. She praised his leadership style as being similar to Pritz's, which she described as "approachable and problem-solving."

"I definitely think (Clifford) will be able to continue with their vision," Tellone said.

Clifford has a bachelor's degree in psychology and education from Saint Leo College, a master's in guidance and counseling from the University of South Florida and an administrative certification from USF.

Pritz, who was a member of the screening committee, said Clifford is well liked by West Hernando's staff. "I'm excited. I'm glad he got it. I think the three candidates that were finalists were all good people. But I think that Joe has got the vision for West Hernando."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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