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Top of the class

On-the-job learning

Novices a year ago, two middle school assistant principals evolve into good listeners and just disciplinarians.

Published May 22, 2003

BROOKSVILLE - With just a few minutes left in the lunch period at West Hernando Middle School, assistant principal Charlie Casciotta is suddenly approached by a young man who seems about to burst in anguished despair.

He's afraid to go back to his classroom for fear that his teacher will send him to the office to be disciplined over heated words that were exchanged that morning. His face reddens as he rants, insisting that he did nothing to provoke such a response.

Casciotta quickly sizes up the situation and issues an order in a calming voice.

"You need to take a deep breath and calm down," he says as he puts his hands on the seventh-grader's shoulders. "We aren't going to be able to solve this unless you are willing to work with me."

With that, the student casts his eyes around the room. Moments later, he is breathing slowly and offers an apology to Casciotta, who assures the boy that when he speaks to his teacher later about the incident, all will probably be well in the end.

Later, as he finishes a quick lunch in the faculty lounge, Casciotta reflects on the incident.

"I could have sent him to my office and worked it out there," said Casciotta. "But if there's one thing you learn about this job, it's the importance of being a good listener. The thing with kids this age is that all too often they don't feel anyone really listens to them, so they get worked up and act out those frustrations. The best thing I can do is de-escalate the tension so that we can get to a point where we can work things out."

The ability to judge fairly and administer just discipline was what newly appointed principal Joe Clifford was looking for when he brought Casciotta and Ray Pinder on board last summer. Though both were novices to the position, it didn't take long for Clifford to be convinced he made the right choice.

"This is a job that's not defined so much as "what you know' as it is "who you are,' " said Clifford, who spent six years as a middle school assistant principal. "I wanted people for those roles who had tremendous dedication as well as an ability to come up with creative solutions. To me, Charlie and Ray have a true sense of why we're all here, which is to provide our students the best opportunities to succeed."

Though both men are new to school administrative roles, both agree that their years as classroom educators have enriched their knowledge of the subtle dynamics it takes to oversee the complex social structure found at a middle school.

Pinder, 34, began his teaching career at West Hernando as a dropout prevention specialist, working with special needs children. Six year later, he moved to the mainstream curriculum, where he taught seventh-grade math, and in 2001 he earned the honor of Hernando County Teacher of the Year.

Though he admits the job has had its share of learning curves, Pinder believes the demanding tasks that come during his 10-hour workday have taught him a lot about himself. Perhaps most important has been an unswerving confidence to make quick decisions that his conscience can live with, particularly when it comes to disciplining students.

"You have to balance action with fairness," said Pinder. "Knee-jerk reaction rarely works well when dealing with kids. You can't win their trust or their parents' trust by any kind of intimidation. Resentment just fosters more resentment, so I try to avoid that whenever possible."

Like Pinder, Casciotta spent several years in a classroom at West Hernando. He left his social studies teaching post eight years ago to become a curriculum specialist in the district office. With Clifford's blessing, he agreed to swap positions with former assistant principal Mary Krabel last summer.

Despite not having daily contact with adolescent pupils for eight years, Casciotta says he was impressed with the progressive teaching atmosphere and West Hernando's reputation for interdisciplinary teaching.

"I think the kids here have the benefit of having teachers who aren't afraid to raise the bar and challenge them," said Casciotta. "When kids are encouraged to make education a personal mission, they're more apt to give more and get more back. Because of that, I think our level of success is higher than a lot of other schools."

As the school's primary deans of discipline, about 80 percent of the day for Casciotta and Pinder is spent handling troubled students. Because about one-third of the 1,200 pupils are designated as special-needs students, the assistant principals may counsel as many as a dozen discipline cases each day.

"Actually," said Casciotta, "I consider ourselves lucky that we have only about 50 or 60 kids that present any real problems. And we have a few we pretty much see over and over all the time. Which is why I consider my greatest goal to get them to stop and think before there is a next time."

Meting out justice is fairly cut and dried, says Casciotta. Punishment for most offenses is covered by written guidelines. Perhaps the toughest challenge, he says, is convincing parents of their role in the behavior of their children.

"We work hard to get them involved because what we do here is limited to here," said Casciotta. "When they leave the property we have no control, so it's up to the parents to help change those attitudes."

Both Casciotta and Pinder credit much of their success to a supportive team of teachers and administrators, a relationship that both say has grown stronger during their brief tenures.

"It's been a huge learning process for us," said Pinder. "I think Charlie and I have benefited by being part of a system where everyone's on the same page. We'll continue to grow as we go along, and a lot of that will be because people believe in what we're doing."

[Last modified May 22, 2003, 01:30:54]

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