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Principal in a class by himself

Longtime educator Gary Hocevar has found new life in charter schools. And Terrace Community Middle School has found new life with him.

Published September 15, 2006


In a charter school movement littered with failed experiments, Terrace Community Middle School gleams.

Parents line up to enroll their children in the academically demanding school, creating a waiting list about two-thirds the size of the 400-member student body.

The school ranks among the top 10 statewide in all schools of its kind. So successful is Terrace Community that it has outgrown its home at the Museum of Science and Industry, and plans to add high school grades.

It's a quantum leap forward for the 9-year-old school that not too long ago stood out of compliance with state standards, its budget unbalanced and its educational team adrift.

Credit Gary Hocevar, the school's unconventional and outspoken principal, for the turnaround. In short order he fixed the finances, brought the school under state code, revamped the staff, recruited a more diverse student body and began planning for growth.

After a career in traditional public schools, Hocevar, 54, did not need to do any of this. He could have remained retired, living in the Keys. He could have made loads of money as a high-priced education consultant.

But something about the freedom of charter schools attracted this free thinker who follows the way of the Dalai Lama, lives on a sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico and readily admits to being perhaps Hillsborough County's only openly gay public school principal.

"I remember one of the board members saying, 'We can't afford you,' " said Hocevar, who earns $105,000 a year and receives no extra benefits. "I said, 'No, you can't. But this isn't about money for me.' "

Rather, it's about trying to find better ways to educate youngsters, ways that the state holds accountable but does not hinder with reams of regulations. Though they receive tax money and must meet state performance standards, charter schools are not bound by many of the bureaucratic rules that county school systems must follow. Students come from all over the county.

Every Terrace Community student has an individualized education plan. Each year, everyone reads the same novel, usually by a Florida author, and must find ways to apply it to all classes. At the end of the year, the school suspends classes for a weeklong symposium on the novel.

These are the kinds of things that excite Hocevar.

"When he sails, he's able to forget everything," says Danny Scaringi, Hocevar's longtime partner. "Otherwise, he eats, sleeps and drinks it education."

It's nothing new. As a 9-year-old growing up in Phoenix, he organized all the bored neighborhood kids. But not for football. For classes in his back yard.

At Northern Arizona University, though his parents pressed him to become a lawyer, he decided teaching was where he could make a real difference.

"It's really the independent thinkers, I believe, that can make change in the world," Hocevar says.

And he has generally used his position to do what he considers best for kids.

He won election to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1986 after helping his suburban Albuquerque neighbors get their streets paved and sewer lines extended. Once in the Legislature, he focused on things like restructuring urban education funding.

"I really had no design on politics," says Hocevar, who served two terms and then did not seek re-election. "But I saw it as an opportunity to impact education."

Along the way, he married briefly and had two daughters, Alexis and Heather. That was what his parents expected, he says. But he eventually divorced.

Hocevar met Scaringi, also an educator, in Bradenton about 12 years ago, and they hit it off.

His daughter, Alexis, who just finished the police academy, talks fondly of being raised by her mom and two dads.

"Danny has been like a second mom to me," she says. "They're just a joy as parents. I couldn't ask for any better."

Despite his family's acceptance, Hocevar tried to keep his personal life, well, personal. He commuted from Pinellas County rather than residing near his Bradenton school, for example, to avoid prying eyes and wagging tongues. The Manatee County superintendent knew and said he didn't care; he even promoted Hocevar to a district-level job. But he also suggested that Hocevar's lifestyle might not go over too well in that socially conservative community, so he should keep it quiet.

By the time he got to Terrace Community, he didn't want to put up a mask any longer. So he told the board he is gay and if they had a problem with that, they had a problem with him. Board members shrugged, preferring to talk education philosophy.

A few parents complained, but after a few months, they came to support Hocevar and his vision. Now it's not discussed.

"Every action, every decision, every word out of his mouth is focused on the goal of making it the most awesome education opportunity he can," says Nancy Hutson, who serves on the charter school board. "It's infectious."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 269-5304.

Gary Hocevar

Age: 54

Occupation: Principal, Terrace Community Middle School

Latest initiative: Founded an association of charter schools

Favorite way to relax: Sailing

Book standing alone on his office shelf: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Did you know? Hocevar served as a Democratic state representative in New Mexico from 1986-1990, representing a heavily Republican district.

[Last modified September 14, 2006, 10:29:52]

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