A weekend interview with Steve Cox, retiring principal of Moore-Mickens Education Center in Pasco
School systems across Florida are seeing some of their most veteran educators leave as the academic year ends. They take with them decades of experience and institutional knowledge that just can't be replaced. Steve Cox is one of them. He grew up in Pasco County, where both his parents were educators, and now is retiring after nearly 40 years in the schools as a teacher and administrator. Cox spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about what he's leaving behind, and what he looks forward to.
You've been with the district, with education ...
... for 38 years.
And your family has been involved in education in this community ...
... since 1954. My mom and dad came down from Kentucky when I was two years old. My dad was a principal and for a brief time superintendent. My mom was a teacher and director of Head Start back in the late '70s and 80s.
So how did you decide that was what you wanted to do as opposed to getting as far away from your family's business?Good question. There was a gentleman who was very instrumental in my life. I have three in my life. One is a gentleman named Jim Davis. In the district he is affectionately known as the old Jim Davis. And Jim was moving to the district office. He had been my seventh grade math teacher. And I was working for him at Zephyrhills Middle School at the time. And he was the principal. And he was moving to the director of employee relations at the district. ... Jim announced to our faculty on the last day of school that he was going to be leaving. We were all sad, naturally. And he wouldn't let me check out. ...
We go out and sit under an oak tree at the school. He said, You should be the assistant principal that will open up when they probably name a gentleman named Bruce Baldwin to be the principal. So I said, Jim, no. I keep bees. I'm a gardener. I want to keep these things. And Pat Reedy, who's now at Pasco High, came in and took the job. And Pat did a wonderful job. But Pat is about three years younger than me, and it was like salt in an open wound. ... So back in about '84-85 I just decided it was time and I was going to do this. So I quit keeping bees, and I quit having a garden. I had daughters instead. I went back and got my master's, did some other things playing the game you have to be an administrator in any district, not just in Pasco County -- committees and that whole nine years. And I think by '88-89 I had my first AP job at Pasco High. I was the first person to go back there as an administrator...
So you went to Pasco High as a student.Graduated in the class of 1970. Went back as an administrator in 1989. It was funny having teachers there ... It was kind of weird going back.
After that it was just a continual progression?
I went back to Stewart. I was five years with Bruce Baldwin at Stewart. Pat Reedy had gotten his own school. I was very fortunate down there. Bruce Baldwin was a very good mentor for me. And we also had a lady who was the other AP there, her name was Lynette Fields. ... Both of those people were very instrumental in getting me through the ropes, so to speak, of how to manage a school...
So over the course of the years ... what are some of the biggest changes that you've seen? Ones that are good and maybe even ones you wished never happened.
Education is an evolution of changes. I am truly convinced that the changes I experienced will be mine. I have a daughter that's in the assistant principal pool here in Pasco County. The changes she faces will be hers. And I don't know that any of them are any bigger or smaller. I've seen budget issues in 1974. I've seen budget issues in the '80s. I've seen budget issues in the '90s. I think our superintendent now has the biggest budget issues we've faced. But we've had them all along. I guess I think of anything, I wish our legislators would stop changing something every year and let us make something happen. ... It's like every legislator has to put their stamp on the agenda and we can't keep up. ...A good example of that is we do a process where in September-October the board reads and approves all our school improvement plans. They've changed radically over the past three years and we've been told they're going to change again because someone in Tallahassee thinks they need to be completely different. Let us stay in something that lets us grow instead of making us spend all our time having to cope with something new.Positives? I think Pasco County has an education system that a lot of people underrate. ... From just what I know from Pasco High, Dr. Susan MacManus. Pasco High grad. Tommy Johnson, who lives in Blanton and was part of Danka and a number of other copying systems. Pasco High Class of '60. There's a lady Martha Walters, I don't know her married name, she's a lawyer up in Tallahassee, president of the American Bar Association a few years ago. I don't think people understand the quality of graduates that Pasco County produces and how far out they extend into the community. ...
Are they making changes here at Moore-Mickens they were planning to do at other schools, such as Irvin and Schwettman?
When the new principal is named, they are going to have to do some new things here. There are some strengths and weaknesses in what we do. We graduated 43 of our 110 kids we have here on this campus. That is generally what we shoot for. ... We have some weaknesses in that. I think the credit recovery program they do at Irvin and Schwettman could have a niche here on this campus. But as far as what Mr. Davis has told me, at least for the foreseeable future, they want to keep this school what it is. This is the weirdest little school in Pasco County. We're not Marchman. We're not Irvin or Schwettman. We're all over the place. And that's why I've stayed here 15 years. I love that constant shifting of gears, constantly going from this thing to this thing.
What do you think will be your favorite memories of working as an educator?
I think my favorite thing will be this little school changes the lives of about 350-400 people a year through GEDs, through certified nursing assistants, through cosmetology, through high school graduation, through ESE graduates. Pasco High graduated 250 students the other night. Great ceremony. And that's what they are expected to do. We take the people that weren't successful going through that normal process, and we're able to get about 400 of them in east Pasco County through to something. ... We're able to change their lives. I mean, it's not great wages. But most of those people can go out and make $12-$15 an hour doing those types of jobs. And in today's economy, I've got a daughter who's a college graduate who's not making $15 an hour. I think that's the thing I'm most proud about.
What made you decide to retire?
That's a long time.I wrote to the superintendent the other day ... that literally 50 of my 58 years have been spent in the Pasco County school system, when you count 12 years of going to public schools here. It's just time to go on some adventures.
What are those adventures going to be?I think it's like high school graduation. I have these plans. I still have an organic garden. I built myself a greenhouse. I have some unique natives I found - a rhododendron and a sugar maple that's native to Florida - that I probably will start propagating in the greenhouse. I like to fish. I still go to the Y three days a week. I still like to ride a bicycle through the country. I probably will be doing all of those things. My wife has been retired for a year from the school system. We hopefully will get to go see fall in Michigan, just because we never get to see fall anywhere but Florida when you're an educator. ...
One of the things is, there are guitar camps for adults. ... I have said, that would be a neat way to spend four days, up in Ohio learning how to play the guitar better.
Do you think you will ever get to the point where you want to come back to a school again?
If the times change and the superintendent can use me, yeah, I would not mind coming back for a spot here or a spot there. But I don't think I would come back in any way full time. ...
I want to know more about what you have seen.
I go back to high school and football. Pasco High played every school in Pasco County in footbal all four years I went there - Zephyrhills and Gulf. Okay? (Laughs) Gulf is about the same age as Pasco High, and so is Zephyrhills. All three schools have their origins in that same time period. ... There were four buses that came over from Land O'Lakes to Pasco High every morning. We called them the Lakers. That was just a part of our population in our school. The growth that has gone on in our school system has been just phenomenal. From a sleepy little 11, 12 school district with maybe 6,000 kids in it - 5,000 kids - to 60,000-70,000 kids in it and 75 or 80 schools. That's a lot of growth for one county.
I think the growth has been managed as well as you can manage growth. That sleepy little southern town, it still has some of the charm of it, but a lot of it is no longer there. ...
So your daughter is going to be a principal as well?She is in the assistant principal pool in the county. I think she will make it. She has got a lot of hurdles to overcome there. She has a lot of learning to do. But she seems to have the correct skill set.
What kind of advice do you give a person like her, who is just getting started now in the position that you're getting ready to leave?
Probably just take it one day at a time. Nothing is ever quite as bad, or quite as good, as it seems to be. Don't let the days get up and down. Try to keep them level. Try to keep as even sailing as possible. It will get rough at time. But learn to adapt. Try to keep your school and staff as level as you can.
What about students? Everybody keeps saying that students are not the same today as they were.
I disagree. I say it to every kid that comes in here. I couldn't graduate high school today. My GPA was not high enough. There are a lot of kids in Pasco County today with a lot of big needs. There's no doubt about that. But I am not convinced that it's any different than it was 50 years ago. My reason is because 50 years ago they quit. At 13, 14, no one would go out and hunt them down. My freshman class at Pasco High was 400. My graduating class was 192. We now by law are required to keep those kids in school. I think if you have 100 kids, you still have 10 bad kids. And I think 50 years ago, you had 100 kids, you still had 10 bad kids. But now you've got instead of 6,000 you've got 70,000. So naturally you're going to have a much larger population of bad kids. ...Our school here we have about 120 kids enrolled here through the year. Most of them like me in school had some issue with high school. But you know, at the end of the day, we've had one fight on this campus and we've had a couple of what I call drama days, where the girls and guys just go crazy with hearsay type of stuff. ... I only do about 110-115 referrals. My staff routinely says we have good, not great, but we have good school discipline here. And we address the issues that need to be addressed. So I don't there's a huge difference....
Are you ready?
July 22 will be my last day. That's a Thursday. July 23, as long as the good Lord is willing and the oil spill doesn't contaminate the Gulf, I will be heading with my wife, one daughter and her husband and some good friends for a week of lobstering in the Keys. And I am ready for that like you wouldn't believe.