It's loved, respected and feared for its perennial success in the state's most popular sport. • It is not a stretch to say the Armwood High School football team has put the school on the map. • New principal Mark West is thrilled to be at a school with a powerhouse football program. But, he's also hoping to garner attention for strides in the classroom as well. • He's got some work to do.
Armwood often receives a "C" grade from the state, ranks at the lower end for graduation rates and had the second-highest number of expulsion hearings (17) for district high schools during the 2011-2012 school year.
West, on the job about three months, calls Armwood a good school that can get better.
And he knows something about successful high schools. He came to Armwood after several years at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico. The school almost always earns an "A" or "B" grade from the state, has high graduation rates and had only eight expulsion hearings during the 2011-2012 school year.
The schools are different. Armwood is in more of a working-class community while Bloomingdale is thought of as more of an upscale enclave. But West is certain success can be had anywhere — if teachers, parents and students work together.
"We do have some catching up to do," he said. "But I've not met a parent who doesn't want their child to succeed."
West said he wants to encourage students to become passionate about their studies and their school.
"We need to get the kids connected, connected to the school," he said. "We want to promote a lot of clubs. Not just the athletes. Not just the musicians."
West's job is deeper than just boosting graduation rates, improving student grades and test scores, providing a safe campus and cheering on the sports teams.
West must also heal a campus bruised by two occurrences: a player eligibility scandal that cost the school its 2011 state football title and the midyear transfer of its principal and three other administrators.
In June, the school was stripped of its third football championship after the Florida High School Athletic Association discovered athlete residency violations.
In November, principal Michael Ippolito left Armwood to fill the open principal's slot at Tampa Bay Tech High School. He had previously worked at Tampa Bay Tech as a teacher and assistant principal.
West, who started his new position in January, said he is working hard to make connections at Armwood. He spoke fondly of students and highly of parents and teachers. He also praised his administration team, which includes three new assistant principals.
Dr. Joseph Castelli is the school's assistant principal of curriculum and followed West from Bloomingdale to Armwood.
Elijah Thomas left Freedom High School to take the job as Armwood's assistant principal of administration.
John Campbell is the school's assistant principal of student affairs and previously worked at Plant City High School.
The change in administration was initially "a little unsettling" for students, West said. But, he quickly added, he and the new assistant principals are experienced and thrilled to be there. He thinks their enthusiasm shows.
"The kids have been receptive," he said.
Steve Hegarty, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Public Schools, doesn't link the administration changes to the player eligibility scandal or the school's "C" grade. He said principals, assistant principals and teachers switch schools all the time. But, Hegarty does think West is a good fit for Armwood.
"He's a great principal," Hegarty said. "He has a great way with kids and a great way with parents."
Longtime football coach Sean Callahan agrees.
"He has nothing but a positive attitude," Callahan said. "It's all been good."
Callahan said he likes the way West goes about business on campus. He wants students to dress well, be on time to class, keep the campus clean and do their best.
"We both embrace the same thing," he said. "We're both here for the kids."
Callahan said the football team is a cherished part of the community. Its success has given Seffner residents some pride. Maybe, he said, Armwood's achievements can expand with West at the helm.
"We would like to be good at everything," Callahan said.
As West navigates his new job, gets to know the school's 1,600 students and prepares to unveil Armwood's new Collegiate Academy, he understands the sports tradition in Seffner. He grew up in North Carolina, which is basketball country. West played sports in high school and is a Wake Forest University graduate.
West, who earned a master's degree in educational leadership at the University of South Florida, even did a little coaching while working as a teacher in Hillsborough County. So, while he works to put his imprint on Armwood, he is aware that sports, especially football, are an important part of the school and the community.
"We're proud of that," he said. "We also want to have an academic focus, and we do."
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]