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Challenger K-8 principal retires today

SPRING HILL

After 35 years with the district, principal Sue Stoops will walk through the doors of Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics today for the final time, her legacy of creating and maintaining high-achieving schools forever cemented.

But before we get to that, there's the small issue of her unmistakable bias.

Stoops is and always has been an unwavering, unflappable and definitely unapologetic Florida Gators fan.

It's pretty obvious, to say the least.

As Challenger's first and only principal since it opened in 2005, Stoops helped shape every facet of the fledgling school's identity. So it should come as no surprise that the school colors are orange and blue. Or that the mascot is an alligator, or that the flag is striped blue and orange with a little gator on it, or that the school's mascot is the Navigator.

Insidious, no?

But all gators aside, few administrators with the Hernando school district have left such an indelible mark on a single school.

Stoops has put her stamp on everything at Challenger, from the focus on science and math, to the electives in forensics and marine biology, to the teachers. She even chose the carpeting and furniture.

"You'll never not be here," social studies teacher Chris King told Stoops on Tuesday as she said goodbye to a group of students. "You're in the walls of this place."

•••

Stoops, 66, started teaching in Hernando County in 1968 at what was then Brooksville Junior High School.

Fresh out of the University of Florida, she taught seventh-grade science.

"She was an outstanding teacher. Just phenomenal," said Springstead High School principal Susan Duval, who started teaching with her in 1969. "The kids had a good time in her classroom, but also learned."

She taught there for eight years before leaving the field to focus on raising her children.

She started working part time at the now-shuttered Rogers Christmas House Village. Part time turned into full time. Full time turned into overtime, she joked, and all of a sudden 10 years had passed.

She traveled the world — Europe, Asia — on buying trips for the Christmas House and was deeply involved in designing the holiday pieces, decorating the rooms and designing the trees.

But her practical nature eventually kicked in: She needed to get on a retirement plan.

In 1986, she came back as the school district's coordinator of health and drug education, spending eight years in that position.

After that, her ascension to principal came quickly.

She was transferred from the district office to Spring Hill Elementary to become an assistant principal. A few months later, she moved to Brooksville Elementary to do the same job. Within just a short time, she was named principal at that school.

"It was kind of a baptism by fire," she said.

•••

When Stoops took over at Brooksville Elementary in 1995, the school was struggling badly.

It had the lowest test scores among the district's elementary schools, the highest truancy rate and probably the highest discipline rate, she said.

That changed.

"Together we brought that school up from the lowest-performing school to one of the three top-performing elementary schools in the county," she said.

She implemented the fundamental school program in world studies. She instituted the district's first school uniform policy. She pushed for more parent involvement.

"I used to pay for taxis to go pick moms up and bring them to school," Stoops said. "We'd take the school bus and go into their neighborhoods, and the teachers would meet with parents when they couldn't come to us.

And she helped bring Brooksville up to an A grade.

"Coming from where we were, that was monumental progress," she said. "The staff worked very, very hard."

•••

In 2005, Stoops left to lead the soon-to-be-opened Challenger, the district's first K-8 school.

For six months, she worked with architects and facilities management on the school.

"I had to order every piece of furniture that's in here," she said. "I had never furnished a 300,000-square-foot home. But I really felt like I took the same pains picking out stuff here that I would do for myself."

She was adamant about not having rows of desks, opting instead for tables where students could learn together and work in teams.

She made sure the science rooms were equipped to be labs.

"Her attention to detail is phenomenal," Duval said. "She was involved in every aspect in the design and construction of that school."

Under Stoops' leadership, Challenger has always been an A school.

But there's more than that.

The school is ranked second in the state for combination K-8 schools in terms of its students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. It's in the top 2 percent, overall, for all elementary and middle schools.

Stoops takes none of the credit.

"I attribute it to the teachers, totally," she said. "They're just incredibly good teachers."

She says her role as principal is quite simple: Do whatever is possible for teachers so they can do the most for kids in their classrooms.

"I love that part of being a principal," she said. "I don't like being the boss."

•••

Room by room, Stoops said goodbye to Challenger's middle-school students Tuesday morning.

At first, she seemed to struggle to get it out.

"I'm just trying to get to all the middle-schoolers to say goodbye," she said.

A teacher translated for her: Principal Stoops is retiring, she told the class.

One girl rushed forward to give her a hug. Then another. Then a dozen more. Then everybody.

They giggled, smashing in closer.

The same scene unfolded again and again as she moved on to other classes.

Hugs. Giggles. Teachers fighting back tears.

"She is the school," said Jennifer Squillante, a middle-school math teacher. "I don't know what we'll do without her. I don't even want to think about it."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.

Challenger K-8 principal retires today 12/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 8:09pm]

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