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New Lacoochee principal driven to turn school around

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Published:   |   Updated: July 26, 2013 at 12:33 PM

LACOOCHEE - Latoya Jordan didn't need to think long when she was asked to take over as principal at Lacoochee Elementary, an academically struggling school that is launching a turnaround effort aimed at shaking off its perennial D-school status.

Jordan knows the school because three decades ago she was a Lacoochee student. She can still point out classrooms where her education took shape and launched her on a path that led right back to where she began.

"Lacoochee Elementary helped mold me into who I am today," said Jordan, who served six years as assistant principal at Cox Elementary in Dade City.

Now it's her turn to be part of molding a new generation of Lacoochee children.

"It's exciting, very exciting," Jordan said. "This is home. I love Cox, but I think my love for Lacoochee is a little different."

It's summer break, but there hasn't been time to slow down at Lacoochee. Jordan helped with a summer reading program this week, sitting on the floor as she led 9-year-old Jesus Munoz through his assignment. Upcoming is the school's kindergarten camp.

Already, Jordan and her staff attended four days of state training in St. Petersburg as they prepared to meet the challenge of improving academics at a school the Florida Department of Education has targeted as low performing.

Because the school is facing its third D year in a row, the school district had to submit an improvement plan to the state. Part of that plan included advertising all the teaching jobs as open, as well as the principal and assistant principal positions.

Staff members could apply for their jobs, and many did, but there also was an effort to bring in new faces. Even before she was named principal, Jordan served on an administrative team that conducted the job interviews in May, quizzing teachers on topics such as how they handle discipline, their knowledge of the new Common Core State Standards and why they would be a good fit for Lacoochee.

Jordan still needs to hire a guidance counselor, but otherwise the staff is set with a roughly even split of newcomers and returning teachers.

The school district retained responsibility for the school under the improvement plan it chose. Other possibilities included transforming the school into a charter school or hiring a private management company to run it.

Another option the district could have chosen was to close the school completely and send the students elsewhere. The district didn't give that idea much consideration.

"This school is pretty much the hub of the community," Jordan said. "Community members and the children would have been devastated."

Jordan didn't expect to be in the running for principal. The district appeared focused on finding an experienced principal, and she was an assistant principal. People began to tell her they thought she was under consideration, though, and one day she was asked whether she would be comfortable taking on the challenge.

She was.

On July 2, Superintendent Kurt Browning told the school board that Jordan was a good fit for Lacoochee and the board accepted his recommendation to name Jordan principal.

"She gets it," Browning said. "She understands the mission."

That's at least in part because of her years as assistant principal at Cox Elementary, a school with similar demographics. Both Lacoochee and Cox are Title I schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income families. Nearly every student at both schools qualifies for the federal free and reduced-price meal program.

Browning has vowed the district will do whatever it takes to make Lacoochee successful, even if it means district officials need to knock on doors and urge parents to get their children in school.

Jordan hasn't had to do that yet, but she has no qualms about the idea.

"It wasn't out of the ordinary at Cox for me to go to doors or call parents," she said.

Lacoochee was an A school as recently as 2009 but has stumbled in recent years. It received a D the past two years and expects to be no better than a D when this year's grades are released.

Parent Maranda Smith remembers Lacoochee's better days and longs for the school to return to what it once was. Her daughter will no longer be there, though, regardless of what happens. The family is moving, and Smith has enrolled her daughter in San Antonio Elementary, their new neighborhood school.

Even if she hadn't moved, Smith said, she planned to place her daughter somewhere other than Lacoochee.

Still, she wishes the best for the school.

"I hope the school gets up to the grade it used to be," Smith said. "I hope with the new principal and staff the students get the help they need."

Even though it was tough to watch as Lacoochee slipped from an A to a D, Smith said, it's important that parents know the situation. She is critical of the state Board of Education's recent decision, championed by Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, to limit grade drops this year to one letter grade, regardless of a school's test scores.

"With them keeping it from dropping like that, they are not being honest with the parents," Smith said.

She said parents at an A school that had plummeting test scores could be under the illusion that the school finished the year a B school when in reality it might be a D school.

"I don't think it's right," Smith said.

Jordan sees the state board's decision as an acknowledgment that there are inconsistencies in the grading system.

Jordan said one reason Lacoochee dropped from an A is that the state raised the scores for achieving proficiency on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Since the grading became tougher, it's difficult to compare current grades to those from previous years, she said.

But Jordan said she believes it's possible for Lacoochee to once again attain the A-school status. Now it's just a matter of getting to work to achieve that.

"I am just going to come out and do my very best," Jordan said. "I have a vested interest in this school and these kids."

rblair@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1853

Twitter: @RBlairTBO

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