NEW TAMPA — He's 35, the second youngest principal in Hillsborough County. Chris Farkas, who served as principal at Tampa Bay Tech for 2 1/2 years, took the helm of Freedom High School this month after Richard Bartel's retirement.
Farkas has high hopes of raising the school's spirit and tackling negative perceptions that have plagued the school in recent years. It's an unfortunate legacy for a school in such a privileged community: fighting, rapid turnover of athletic coaches, kids who burned "F--- You Bartels'' on the football field. But none of that seems to faze this father of three girls. At 6-2, Farkas is often mistaken for a football player. (Basketball is the Indiana native's favored sport.)
One of his first orders of business over the summer was to repair the football field. More than 40,000 booster club dollars later, the concession stands have fresh paint, the field has new sod, and the school, Farkas hopes, has a new attitude.
Farkas talks fast, honestly and a lot. Here's what else he had to say:
How would you describe yourself?
Outgoing. I believe in working very hard. I also believe in having a lot of fun. I think that without getting too deep into the psychological side of it, when my dad passed away about eight to 10 years ago, we kind of came to the realization that you need to be happy now. The grass isn't always greener. Since then, I've been very happy. Very happy with my family, very happy with my wife. I feel very comfortable making decisions based on if my daughters were at Freedom, and making decisions for the right reasons. I think people appreciate that. I'm pretty straightforward with my faculty and my friends. They all know where I come from. It's pretty easy to get to know me.
What are your impressions of Freedom?
It's unrealistic for me to think that I can put some description of what Freedom is like because I haven't been here. I will say that a lot of students I had an opportunity to talk to, most of them have been athletes, they desire more school spirit, more unity at the school. So that's going to be a focus. Making Freedom a desirable place to be, making kids want to be here, to have pride, be proud that they go to Freedom.
Are you a big sports fan?
I am a big sports fan. I think there's a correlation between pride and athletics. I don't believe in accepting mediocrity on any level. Whether it's administration, athletics or academic, I think you need to take pride and if you're going to do it, do it well.
What kind of an environment do you hope to create at Freedom?
Hopefully intellectual stimulation will be a big part of it. I think high school is a great opportunity for you to learn and open your mind. A lot of times, kids have the attitude of "why do I have to learn this?" Sometimes learning does open your eyes and gives you a different perspective. I truly believe that if you can expand your mind and make your mind work a little bit, a lot of times, it tells you a little bit about yourself and pushes yourself a little bit further than you think it can go.
What's the toughest decision you've had to make as principal?
Personnel decisions. Someone who wants to be a teacher but doesn't have the skills or aptitude to be successful. Taking someone who thinks that it's their life's work and telling them it isn't going to happen.
So you can be tough then?
I believe so. I usually like to do that behind closed doors. I'm definitely under the philosophy that you praise in public and criticize in private. It's very easy for me to be aggressive and to be strict when you're doing things that aren't good for kids. So that makes it very easy to go behind closed doors with someone that isn't doing things that are effective in any aspect of education and make sure that they're doing things that are good for kids. It makes it very easy for me to get agitated and discipline.
Did you pick Freedom or did Freedom pick you?
I decided to throw my name in the ring and I thought I could possibly help out. It was my decision. It's always your decision. You can always stay in the job that you're at.
What would your reaction be if some students disrespected you like they did to Principal Bartels by burning "F--- You Bartels'' into the football field?
Everyone misspells my name. If they're going to put Farkas on the field, it's F-A-R-K-A-S. … Just make sure they spell it right when they put it on there. (He chuckles.) Obviously everyone wants to be liked, but I'm not worried about that. I find it hard to believe that a kid could prove that I did something that was malicious to them. That's just not the person that I am. I haven't had that problem. It doesn't mean that I won't. I'm not naive to think that I have all the answers. That's not one of my issues, that kids think that I'm out to get them or malicious by any stretch.
What do you think about teachers having MySpace accounts to connect with their students?
I think it's a slippery slope to have a MySpace page with student interaction. Teachers are held to a higher standard and should be. So I think that if you're going to do something like that, you need to be very careful about who you allow in. It's something you have to be cautious of.
How do you create more unity?
That's a question that you can't articulate. Most kids want to go to a school that kids enjoy, take pride in. Hopefully there's not a disconnect between administration and students that I think there possibly was before, based on the limited feedback I got from students who were at Freedom. Unfortunately, there's no books or a blueprint plan, so it's going to be the relationships that I develop with the kids. I think it's going to be a neat opportunity. I think there's such great potential at Freedom. I'm excited to be here and I'm a little bit crazy.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.