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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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The Tellone era ...
By TOM MARSHALL
Published June 17, 2007
President Gerald Ford was fighting a losing battle with upstart candidate Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1976, as "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band vied with the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing" for the top spot on the Billboard charts. Less newsworthy was the arrival on Aug. 10 of a job application at the Hernando County School Board from an ambitious elementary teacher, 25-year-old Wendy L. Tellone. But on that application was a hint, in the stapled wedding engagement photo of Tellone with her husband, Michael, of a partnership that would leave a deeper imprint on the county schools than any president or pop singer would.
They would teach together, revamp the district's gifted-student program, serve as assistant principals in the same high school, and rise through the ranks as administrators.
By the time she became superintendent in 2001, he had opened two new elementary schools as principal, including the district's first magnet program. They brought change to the district, and occasionally drew heat for it.
On the verge of retirement this month, the Tellones talked with the Times about their lives in education over three decades. It was an era that saw the transformation of public schooling in both Hernando County, which more than doubled in size to 23,000 students, and the nation.
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He was a vice president in the family business, selling clothes and renting tuxedos seven days a week, and not particularly happy about it. She was a teacher at an elementary school in St. Petersburg, engaged to be married to someone else.
She dropped by the shop one day in the early '70s to rent a bridesmaid's dress, and chatted with the mustached salesman two years her senior. When she came again to buy a Father's Day gift, her wedding plans in tatters, Michael acted.
"I found out she was available and asked her out the same night," he said.
They were married in 1975, and he abandoned his business career to pursue a degree in music education at Saint Leo College.
It was a meeting of minds as well as spirits. Within a year of his hiring as chorus and band teacher at Hernando High School, Michael had begun assisting Wendy in her districtwide job teaching gifted students and soon joined her full time.
"We lived, breathed education," he said.
They joined a school district where students still said "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am," and the central office staff ran a mom-and-pop operation with financial records in stiff ledgers, Wendy said.
The Tellones were astonished by the number of students who had never ventured beyond the county, never heard classical music. They began bringing high school students to the University of South Florida to learn research skills in a real college library.
"They're everybody's idea of what bright, young teachers should be," assistant superintendent Ruth Marsh told the Times in 1980 when they moved to guidance counselor positions at West Hernando Middle School.
By 1985, when both took assistant principal jobs at Springstead High, even the students were talking about the district's rising power couple.
"The kids referred to us -" Michael began.
"Oh, no, don't tell him that," his wife protested, laughing.
"- as Ken and Barbie, " he finished.
'There was a lot of waste'
Their workplace partnership raised a few eyebrows, particularly as she began her rise in 1988 from Springstead principal to human resources director, assistant superintendent and, in 2001, superintendent.
"The perception, when one (spouse) supervises the other, is that it can be a problem," Wendy said. "It's normally best not to have that situation, but it worked well for us."
In 2005, those perceptions bubbled into the public spotlight when the School Board debated enrollment levels for Michael's Chocachatti Elementary School. The board initially supported a district proposal to keep enrollments low in a new wing at the magnet school, but facing explosive growth and public pressure, reversed itself.
Under such pressure, Wendy has shown a tough exterior and a willingness to push back against criticism.
"I've never been one with tremendous self-confidence; quite the opposite," she said.
But behind the scenes as superintendent, she worked to instill a "family culture" in a district that was feeling growing pains.
She also points with pride to budgetary reforms.
"There was a lot of waste," Wendy said. "I saw a lot of that, and I was very frustrated. I think we're utilizing the funding where it matters, with students."
Their commitment to magnet and gifted programs remains strong. Wendy pushed for better performance in Advanced Placement courses.
"It was appalling to me that we could have an AP class and have 0 percent (of students) passing the test," said Michael, who did his part by negotiating a dual-enrollment program with Pasco-Hernando Community College that has placed growing numbers of high school students in advanced classes.
Minds of their own
For all their shared visions, they occasionally disagree. Where he's openly critical of some elements of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, such as the controversial requirement that every child in the nation perform at or above standard in reading and math by 2014, she's the idealist.
"I'm not sure that's not attainable with the resources," Wendy said.
"Every child at standard?" Michael shot back. "I don't think that's realistic. Just to set the bar at a certain place and assume that everyone is going to rise to that is not realistic."
"I think it's attainable with the right situation," she insisted. "I hate to say it's not possible."
But they agree that the federal law has done much to transform education in Hernando, and not always in helpful ways.
Kindergarten was once a place for children to adjust to school and learn at their own pace, "and not hitting everyone between the eyes with a lot of expectations and standards," Michael said.
They also agree on the challenges confronting new superintendent Wayne Alexander, who faces a crowded agenda of controversial issues -- magnet school admissions, school rezoning, the annual budget and so on -- within weeks of his arrival July 2.
"Everyone is going to be vying for position," Wendy said. "He's got to learn to say 'no.' "
Such worries will soon be a memory for the Tellones, who are planning an ambitious cross-country road trip this summer to begin their retirement.
Michael plans to start a Web site -- "Where in America is Papa Bear?"-- to help his former students follow their travels.
Wendy plans to join Michael in his lifelong passion, music. "I'm going to play in a band," she vowed. "I'm going to learn to play a drum set."
Even in retirement, this power couple doubts they'll be able to fade into the background. They talk of taking on a humanitarian project.
"Not for money," Michael said.
"I need to contribute, and I'll be able to do that," Wendy added.