NEW PORT RICHEY
For years, Seven Springs Elementary School managed to stay off the lists.
The state never found it to be a problem school. It also operated without major oversight from the Pasco County School District.
That all changed in 2014, when Seven Springs got a D rating from the state.
The year after that, the state named it to the Lowest 300 list for reading proficiency. The next year, it became a Title I school, a federal status for schools with high percentages of low-income students.
Suddenly, more people had questions about the school —- once a reliable A or B school — and why its performance had tanked.
Todd Cluff was one of those.
At the time, the former area superintendent worked in the district's northwest region with schools like Hudson Elementary School, which routinely received F grades and also landed on the state's Lowest 300 list.
So when Cluff decided he wanted to be a principal again, he turned down an offer to open brand new Bexley Elementary.
"Morally, I need to be somewhere where I feel like there's a need, versus a place that's going to be successful despite of what I do," he said.
Instead, midway through the 2016-17 school year, he took on the challenge of being Seven Springs' principal.
He came to the school with a simple, yet critical, question: What happened?
After interviewing teachers, he began to see trends develop. While everyone agreed something was different, opinions on how to address it varied.
Some said they needed to hold students to higher standards. Others told him "I wish my peers understood these kids are different than they used to be."
"So what I realized is ... this school has changed, and there are people here who don't know what to do with that," he said.
He likened the school's situation to the story of putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly turning up the heat. The frog doesn't notice the gradual change, but it's slowly being boiled to death.
He did not want that to happen at Seven Springs.
Ten years ago, Seven Springs Elementary was one of Pasco County's highest-performing schools.
Teachers could assume that most of their kids came to class having eaten breakfast. Conversations about family issues or behavioral problems were rare.
But new school openings shrank Seven Springs' footprint, while nearby neighborhoods became rented properties housing lower-income families. The recession of the late 2000s also had an effect.
"We've had a dramatic change in our population," said kindergarten teacher Rhoda Shaw, who has worked there since the school opened in 1989.
In the last decade, the poverty rate, measured in free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, has skyrocketed to 74 percent from 41 percent, and students are coming to class needier.
"They might be getting dressed in the dark because the electricity is cut off," superintendent Kurt Browning said, noting that this is a problem developing in several Pasco schools. "Or they might not have food in the refrigerator."
Needy children also might read at a lower level because parents don't have time for books between working multiple jobs. Maybe a test question about a giraffe stumps them because they've never been to the zoo, seen one on TV or read about them in books.
Recognizing those needs is essential, said Megan Gallagher, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center in Washington, D.C. It doesn't mean teachers should hold them to different standards, though.
"One of the things we have to remember is that poor students have just as much potential as affluent students," said Gallagher.
Reaching that potential, however, requires more comprehensive support.
Vicki Wolin said that over her nearly 14 years as principal at Seven Springs, she strived to do that.
She conducted weekly training sessions —- as well as two summer workshops in 2015 and 2016 — on connecting with students affected by poverty and trauma.
"You have to establish that relationship with them before they can start building bridges in their education," said Wolin, now the principal at Bexley Elementary.
The payoff appeared in last year's school grade, Wolin said, which rose to a C from a D.
It was a more realistic sign of change than the last three years, when the school went from a D to an A, then back to a D. Both assistant superintendent David Scanga and Browning said those grades were an indication of the unpredictable grading system rather than school improvement.
Wolin said she tries not to get stuck on school grades.
"I try to communicate to myself and others that the grading system is a political product," she said. "We need to focus on all the things right with the school rather than that one particular day."
Shaw also said that while the first D grade was a shock, the rigor of testing and what goes into a grade doesn't reflect the progress in her classroom.
"I want them to look at the growth my students have made, not just how they're performing," she said.
Despite bemoaning the statewide accountability system, officials said, school grades are still a valuable way to assess a school.
Scanga said he is happy with the progress, but Seven Springs isn't finished.
"It's nice that we got a bump in improvement, but we need to do much more than this," he said. "And we can."
Cluff feels the same way. While he sees school grades as a flawed system, he knows he has to play the game. And as long he's going to play, he wants to win.
He said Seven Springs can have a reputation for diversity, success and growth. And he is convinced it can be an A school.
When asked how long he thought it might take to get the school where he wants it to be, Cluff was resolutely optimistic.
"A year," he said.
Cluff started working toward those goals immediately, continuing poverty training with teachers over the summer. He also hired new talent, including 12 teachers and several support staffers.
That part of the transition surprised him, especially after spending years working with schools that would advertise for months and still have vacant positions. Learning design coach Jackie Cannarella said the difference maker at Seven Springs has been Cluff.
When he came to the school, he posted on Facebook, asking for committed teachers who were looking for a quest rather than a job.
Cannarella remembers that post as a motivating factor when she decided to apply to work at Seven Springs.
"It spoke to people's hearts," she said.
He also has a way of connecting with parents. Kindra Steadham has sent three kids through the elementary school and has lived in the community all her life. Over the past few years, she said, families that can't afford school supplies, clothes or food have increased, and the community has had to step up. And while she said the school has done a good job addressing the changing needs of the community, Cluff's arrival feels like a sign of new possibility.
"I'm so excited for this upcoming year with him," she said. "He's such a breath of fresh air."
Cluff impressed her when he talked about hosting dances, festivals and family movies nights to get the community more involved. In response, she decided to sign up for the Parent-Teacher Organization, something she hadn't done in years.
"I said, 'I swore I'd never do this again, but I'll do PTO,' " Steadham said.
That emotional attachment is what Cluff is seeking.
He also wants to tackle communication, encouraging teachers to lean on each other.
"Traditionally in education we've been a lot of islands," Cluff said. "The thought that one person can meet all of the diverse needs of their classroom and understand where those kids are coming from is ridiculous."
Communication and a laser-focused vision of the big picture is what sets Cluff apart, teachers said.
"Instead of focusing on what we're not good at, he's helping us find our strengths so that we can move mountains," Cannarella said.
To put his methods to the test, Cluff has also proposed a standard. He wants to know that if he were to put Jasper, his 3-year-old, curly-haired grandson, in any classroom at Seven Springs, that he would learn, feel safe and be loved.
"If I don't feel comfortable doing that, then how dare I put anyone else's child there," he said.
The entire improvement plan has Cluff excited, and it's spreading.
While Scanga sees Cluff's work as a continuation of progress rather than a turnaround, the assistant superintendent believes the new principal brings a lot of dedication to the table.
Pasco School Board member Cynthia Armstrong said she is excited to see what Cluff can do. She heard him speak at the Seven Springs Rotary Club, of which she's a member, and said it feels like the community can expect to see big things.
"I will tell you that all the Rotarians there were so impressed with his vision and his enthusiasm and his plan," Armstrong said, "and we look forward to having him back and hearing all his success stories."