A career in education spans 30 years in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — Eric Uribe admits he used to be a bad kid.

The 18-year-old Central High School student said he brought a lot of his problems to school.

His first instinct, he said, was to talk with his fists.

Then he met principal Joe Clifford.

The longtime Hernando County administrator sat him down and talked to him. Listened to him. Taught him to treat others with respect.

And, above anything else, stood beside him when he needed help the most.

"He's like a Dr. Phil, Oprah, Maury put together," Uribe said. "He's like an idol over here."

After more than three decades as an alternative school teacher, guidance counselor and administrator, Clifford's time with the Hernando County School District is almost over. He will retire Tuesday.

Clifford, 61, leaves behind a legacy as a firm disciplinarian, a principal known for turning around struggling schools, an administrator with a strong academic vision, a man with a million inspirational quotes and — we'd be remiss if we didn't mention it — a bit of a thorn in everybody's backside.

But to his students, especially those who have needed the most guidance, he always will be the person who gave them respect.

"He's actually a principal who would be there for you," said senior Adam Gonzalez. "He's been there for me plenty of times. I love this guy.

"He's like a father figure."

• • •

Clifford wakes up every school day at 4:30 a.m.

He follows the same routine.

Placing a hand on his sleeping wife of 37 years, Wendy, he prays.

"Lord, thank you for this woman," he says. "Thank you for this day. Thank you for the blessings. Watch over and protect us."

He always asks for the same three things: patience, guidance and humility.

His drive to Central is silent — no radio — the time spent thinking about the day before him.

He usually arrives by 5:45 or 6 a.m.

He emails a positive message for the day to his staff.

"The purpose of life is to discover your gift," a recent quotation read. "The meaning of life is to give your gift away."

"You know, I think that sends a loud and clear message to people to stay focused," he said.

That's important to Clifford.

Roaming the halls and courtyard at Central, he reminds students why they are at school. He corrects problems when he sees them.

But he always does it with respect.

He knows everyone comes to school with different struggles.

He had his own.

"There have been a lot of people who have been very good to me in my life and in my career," he said.

As a high school student, he struggled academically and was forced to go to a Catholic boarding military school.

"I don't think you get sent there just because you are an A student," he quipped.

Eventually, he decided to make something of his life.

At 19, he moved on his own from New York to Florida.

He went to Saint Leo University, paying his own way.

He worked three jobs. He tended bar. He cleaned pens. He dug stalls at a stable.

• • •

Clifford took over as principal at Central High in January 2010. His mission: help turn it around.

At the time, it was a D school.

It was among the lowest-performing 5 percent of high schools in Florida. It had a bad reputation.

Clifford had specific ideas for what needed to change.

He thought the school needed a way for students to make up failed classes, a viable literacy program, a focus on rewarding positive behavior.

"It's catching kids doing what they need to be doing and giving them recognition," he said.

He wanted an intense review of the curriculum and new ways to enrich and enhance the way students were taught.

The school jumped to a B grade the following year, though he had only been principal for half of that year.

And under Clifford's leadership, Central High has been able to maintain that grade.

During the most recent school year, Central fell just six points shy of receiving an A.

The school has seen other notable gains.

It has experienced a jump of roughly 10 percentage points in students who pass the reading assessment on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

But perhaps the most significant change has come in the area of discipline.

During the 2009-10 school year, Central had 4,347 discipline referrals that kept students out of the classroom.

That number is down dramatically.

As of November, there had been only 108 referrals for the 2012-13 school year.

Clifford said the school placed an "emphasis on talking with respect."

"Now I can be respectful yet a firm and strong disciplinarian," he said. "I think I've been that."

He credits the school's teachers and educational team with turning things around.

"I am but one of the spokes in the wheel," he said. "And I would tell you that these teachers have worked really exceptionally hard."

The transition at Central wasn't always easy.

Many teachers had to make huge changes.

Clifford said that when he arrived, a lot of teachers chose to move to other schools.

Over the past three years, he estimates, Central has had anywhere from a 40 percent to 50 percent turnover in staff.

He said changing administrations is often difficult, but he also acknowledged that his approach is direct and pointed.

"I wasn't hired to be the social worker for the school," he said, "but the educational leader.

"I have strong ideas on how to accomplish that which I was asked to do, and I did it. And I knew that in that process I would aggravate some people because I was upsetting the proverbial apple cart."

• • •

Clifford, who plans to do education consulting work in retirement, isn't afraid to rock the boat.

He knows he can be a challenge.

"To the people of the district office, I know that I'm difficult," he said. "I'm opinionated; I'm stubborn. People don't always like what I do or how I do it."

Some examples stand out more than others.

Earlier this year, he angered some parents and students with how he went about collecting outstanding fees and unreturned textbooks.

Then there was the letter he penned just after Thanksgiving 2011.

Upset that no School Board members, school officials or county commissioners came to see Central's award-winning ROTC unit at its annual parade of inspection, he publicly lambasted them.

"The public's level of satisfaction with our Congress is 9 percent," he wrote. "My level of satisfaction with our county government is zero percent. I am disgusted and embarrassed with the apparent lack of interest and feeling of entitlement that many of our community leaders show."

Some of the officials didn't take kindly to the admonishment.

But Clifford says he has no regrets.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes on Twitter.

A career in education spans 30 years in Hernando 01/19/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 19, 2013 12:47pm]

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