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Principals ready their staffs for changes

Jean Ferris at Suncoast Elementary and Joe Clifford at West Hernando Middle take on new positions and prepare for challenges.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

When Jean Ferris ascended to the principal's job at Suncoast Elementary School last month, the weight of her newfound responsibility became immediately clear.

"The first day it dawned on me: You are responsible for 840 students and them being successful learners. And you are responsible for a staff of 90. There's nobody else to turn to. You're it," said Ferris, who previously was the school's assistant principal.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge."

For Joe Clifford, a veteran assistant named the new principal at West Hernando Middle School, the realization hit in a different way. He had to tell four teacher's aides that their services would not be needed because his school was reshuffling its staff.

"I don't enjoy that part of it, but it's part of the job," Clifford said. "It was not about them. They were wonderful people."

Ferris and Clifford, the county's two newest principals, assumed their jobs in July after their predecessors -- Tizzy Schoelles at Suncoast and Ken Pritz at West Hernando -- moved on to other jobs in the district.

But the opening day of the 2002-03 school year, Aug. 12, will mark the new principals' first with their students.

Ferris, 52, is excited about a number of new initiatives Suncoast will start this year.

In a partnership with the University of South Florida and the Florida Inclusion Network, Suncoast will train teachers to put the latest brain research into practice in the classroom.

Jo Ann Hartge, one of a handful of Suncoast teachers to earn the prestigious National Board certification, will conduct a support program for new teachers that offers them mentors and close contact with more experienced teachers.

Ferris is interested in increasing Suncoast's emphasis on technology and the environment. To that end, a new unit in earth science will be included in the school's technical education lab. Suncoast is also trying to land a grant that would support a project on energy.

More tangibly, Ferris wants Suncoast, which is next to Spring Hill Regional Hospital, to turn the land behind the school, with its sand pines and gopher turtles, into an environmental study area.

With the growing Wellington at Seven Hills development adding new homes on the school's back doorstep, Ferris wants her students to learn how development affects plants and wildlife habitats.

At West Hernando Middle School, where animals populate an impressive courtyard menagerie, Clifford wants to continue the school's commitment to hands-on learning projects and environmental education.

As part of the staff reshuffling that meant letting go four teacher's aides, West Hernando will be adding six new teaching positions -- two in each grade. The purpose, Clifford said, is to create smaller class sizes, which will help teachers try new learning strategies and promote study skills in ways different from the past.

First, Clifford has a bit of a surprise for his staff.

When teachers and support staff return in full force on Monday, they will shut down the school and escape together on a one-day field trip.

Last year, a similar excursion -- to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa -- was held for teachers. This year, it will include the school's entire work force.

Though Clifford was tight-lipped about the destination, he said the day will include some team-building and leadership-building exercises. It should also help the staff deal with some of the changes going on at the school because of the change in administration.

It goes along with how Clifford sees his role as principal: creating an environment that is exciting for students, parents and teachers.

"That's my job -- to serve this school community. People aren't working for Joe Clifford. Joe Clifford works for them," he said.

"The rising tide floats all boats at West Hernando Middle School."

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