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Principal's passion wins hearts - and minds

"My goal," says Victor Fernandez, standing by a mural in front of the school, "is to make Pierce the A-plus school."

Published September 19, 2003

TOWN 'N COUNTRY - Victor Fernandez came to Tampa from Spain at age 20, alone and unable to speak much English.

He worked his way into a teaching job and eventually a principal's post. The story has been told and retold - in the Spanish press and the classrooms of Pierce Middle School.

He doesn't mind telling it again, in his still-accented English, if he can get his message across to one more student.

Be like me. Be a success.

Be somebody.

At 46, Fernandez is part chef, part cheerleader. A father of two in Odessa whose wife teaches at Gaither High, he's also an administrator.

But mostly Pierce's principal is a passionate mentor to some 1,000 teens and pre-teens in a largely immigrant swath of the Tampa suburbs.

"We will not settle for anything less than an A," he tells the students on their closed-circuit morning show. He directs his next remarks at those scheduled for remedial classes: "We're doing this for you. Not for me, for you."

He tells the track team: "You are looking good!"

And, to those arriving with money for a fundraiser:

"Never tell anybody about the money you are bringing with you. Because you know, money has a habit of walking away."

Then it's Fernandez who is walking away, down the hallways and into the classrooms.

"The kids have to see me walking," he says. "I have to talk to them, interact with them."

"To be their role model"

At an English for Speakers of Other Languages class, the students have surprised him with construction-paper pompoms.

"Congratulations," they tell him. He's hearing that a lot lately, as Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc. has named him Hispanic Man of the Year.

The celebration was the students' idea, says their instructor, Alma Gonzalez-Haskins. One by one they thank him for believing in them, for caring about them.

"Thank you for being my principal," says Alejandro Zuarich of Venezuela.

The kids come from Colombia, from Puerto Rico.

One arrived only weeks ago from Cuba.

"This is the best school in the county," Haskins says as Fernandez works the room, thanking the children for their support and urging them get the most out of their time here. "This isn't an act. This is how he is."

Haskins, originally from Puerto Rico, has taught children who came from one-room schoolhouses in El Salvador and Honduras. They not only struggle with the language, they are overwhelmed by the pace of daily life in Tampa. Their parents typically work multiple low-paying jobs. "They came here to have a better life, and they will have that better life through their children," she says.

Like Fernandez, she embraces the challenge of bringing them into the mainstream, commuting here daily from her home in Brandon.

"I do it because I'm Hispanic and I'm here for my Hispanic kids and I also want to be their role model, like Mr. Fernandez," she says.

The spaghetti chef

Numbers tell some of the story at Pierce. Eighty-three percent of the children are minority, and 74 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. When the FCAT grading system began, Pierce was scoring a steady C.

Fernandez was alarmed, in particular, at the high dropout rate among Hispanic students. While still an assistant principal, he got together with fellow educator Manuel Duran and created a combination Hispanic pride and dropout prevention program called Club Arriba. In Spanish, arriba means "above."

The club, which matched kids with mentors, attracted hundreds of members and spread to about a dozen county schools.

Fernandez also tried to get parents involved. He started cooking spaghetti to boost morale and educate parents about the importance of the yearly FCAT tests.

Today local business contribute supplies and teachers help cook. They served up more than 1,000 dinners at last year's event.

The pledge

I am somebody. I am responsible for my own actions, the results of my behavior and what I become in life. Life does not accept excuses. I will not let my need to be accepted by the gang keep me from doing what is right . . . .

The students say this pledge every morning. It acknowledges, among other things, the dangers of delinquency in Town 'N Country.

Fernandez says he has made great inroads in keeping the students from going astray. As assistant principal, he used to ride a bicycle to clear the hallways. Now in his fourth year as principal, he boasts, "the halls are clear by themselves."

He has lost one of his key tools: The school district was forced this year to cut off funding for after-school care at the middle schools. A program that replaced it charges $25 a week, a sum many parents cannot afford.

If only a corporation would step forward and fund a free after-school program. "I wish I could find someone to do this," Fernandez says.

Yet it is not his way to bemoan what he doesn't have.

He points with pride to an oak tree his Club Arriba kids planted in the courtyard, to the shrubs teachers and students planted in the summer. Two teachers, no longer with the school, painted murals on the front entrance. One shows a two-toned pair of hands, and the words "manos unidos," hands united.

It is the first impression visitors get of a school fighting for respectability. They have won a B ranking the last two years. They have award-winning math teams, sports and musical programs.

"My goal is to make Pierce the A-plus school," Fernandez says. He predicts that when Controlled Choice kicks in next year, Pierce will emerge as a strong neighborhood school and a magnet for Hispanics who appreciate his personal touch. He doesn't mind telling his own story a few more times.

"This country has been there for me," he says. "I feel very, very strongly about this country."

[Last modified September 18, 2003, 10:36:32]

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