WEEKI WACHEE — Troy LaBarbara had his sights set on the principal's desk when he started his career in 1993. Now he's set to lead Hernando's newest high school.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt has tapped the 42-year-old assistant principal at Weeki Wachee High to take over when Dennis McGeehan retires on April 27.
That means LaBarbara will likely be the handing out diplomas to the school's first graduating class in 2013.
"I've seen a lot of graduating classes go through in my career, but this will be the most special," he said. "I've gotten close to a lot of these students, and there's nothing I want to see more than them walking across the stage."
Blavatt selected LaBarbara from five internal applicants. All of them had homegrown assistant principal experience.
Among them was LaBarbara's fellow assistant principal, Sue Lisk, who held an assistant's post at Central for nine years — and had a hand in hiring LaBarbara for an assistant's job there three years ago — before transferring to Weeki Wachee in January 2010. On paper, Lisk has more administrative experience, but she is enrolled in the state's deferred retirement plan and must retire in November 2013.
LaBarbara has experience working to improve student performance, and he doesn't rattle easily, Blavatt said.
"Which is a nice trait for a principal," he said. "He seems to communicate well with the public."
The other applicants were Brent Gaustad, assistant principal at Hernando High since 2008; Carmine Rufa, who held an assistant's position at Springstead High for a year and at Powell Middle for five years before heading to West Hernando Middle in 2008; and Tim Urban, manager of professional development for the district. Urban served as assistant principal at Springstead from 1998 to 2002 and has five years of assistant principal experience in Pasco County.
A native of East Islip, N.Y., LaBarbara moved to Florida at the age of 12. His family settled in Spring Hill a year later.
As part of a psychology course during his senior at Springstead High, LaBarbara worked with students with Down syndrome. The experience made an impact.
"That's what drew me to education," he said.
LaBarbara graduated from Springstead in 1988 and earned an associate's degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Florida State University with a focus on learning disabilities, emotional handicaps and early childhood education.
He started his career in Tampa, teaching middle school students with learning disabilities. He moved the following year to Gulf High School in New Port Richey, where he taught the same population until 1997. That year, he became a job placement transition specialist at Gulf, helping students with varying levels of disabilities get the education and training they needed to enter the workforce.
McGeehan hired LaBarbara in 2009 for an assistant principal's position at Central High, then left the following year to open Weeki Wachee and brought on LaBarbara last year.
"He's very diligent about what he does, very proactive," McGeehan said. "He's very open and approachable."
LaBarbara credits much of his success to the support of his wife, Lina, a media specialist at Land O'Lakes High School who helps keep him up to date on the latest education technology. The couple's son, Nicholas, attends Powell, and 9-year-old daughter Hannah is at Winding Waters K-8.
During his final year at Central, LaBarbara helped write a grant application designed to help the school land the resources needed to lift its D grade. Many of the strategies used at Central can be implemented at Weeki Wachee, even though it's a new school that started with a B in its first year of grading, LaBarbara said. The school opened with about 580 freshmen and sophomores, and the current enrollment is roughly 930. That figure is expected to climb to about 1,260 next year, when the first seniors will graduate.
LaBarbara takes his first principal's job amid a sea change in education policy. A new teacher evaluation system based on student performance is being implemented this year, end-of-course exams have begun to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at the high school level, and all students will be required to take online courses.
"I have plans for all of these things," LaBarbara said. "I just feel like I'm ready to be in that leadership role now."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]