NEW PORT RICHEY — Lizzette Nazario's students won't give her up without a fight.
Nazario, 51, has taught at Gulf High for eight years — five as a Spanish teacher, three as a media specialist. She has 15 years in the Pasco school system.
That's enough to keep her employed with the district. It's not enough to let her remain at Gulf next fall, as the school loses positions and people amid budget-cutting layoffs.
Her forced transfer to Anclote High School, despite every effort by principal Steve Knobl to keep his 2010 teacher of the year, has upset scores of students and parents. What makes her story different from the 465 other Pasco teachers also facing involuntary transfers, including 13 more at Gulf, is that students are organizing to prevent her move.
Hundreds have signed an online petition urging the School Board to let Nazario stay. They're talking about swarming the board's next meeting to show their support.
"It's not fair," said Alyssa Thorne, a 16-year-old rising senior who organized the effort. "When you find a teacher that not only cares about you, but you care about them, you want to fight for that person."
Lori Sarris, whose son Patrick blossomed into a book lover under Nazario's guidance, called the move a travesty. She suggested that the Florida Legislature's action to base teacher retention on performance rather than seniority, which takes effect July 1, comes too late.
"I believe it should be left to performance and their record," Sarris said. "If it was left to that, she wouldn't go."
Rising senior Adam Kelly, a co-administrator of a Facebook page dedicated to keeping Nazario at Gulf, agreed.
"If it was a month later, she would be fine," said Kelly, 17.
Knobl had nothing but praise for Nazario, the president of the Pasco County Schools Media Association, as much for her relationships with students as for her accomplishments at the school. She has been the student council sponsor, helped write grants to get new books for students, and overseen internal assessments for rising juniors entering the International Baccalaureate program.
The senior class gave her more votes than any other teacher to read their names on Friday at their graduation, where she received a standing ovation.
"Kids know who's real and who's not, who's in it for them and who's just in it," Knobl said. "She's just a genuine, nice person who loves her job, loves kids."
"She cares" said Marí Mercado, who just graduated as salutatorian of her class. "That's one of the most important things about her."
She also loves Gulf High.
"I was devastated," Nazario said of the news that she would have to leave the school. "I knew there would be cuts in media. We have two media specialists here. I was hoping I would be able to stay here at Gulf High, but in the classroom."
Nazario also is certified to teach Spanish and special education. But Gulf lost positions in each of those certification areas, too, making it impossible for Knobl to keep her on staff.
Knowing she would have to leave hit Nazario hard. It also sent her supporters into action.
"That was shocking," Nazario said. "This means so much as an educator, to know that students have gone to those lengths just to express their love and concern."
If Nazario gets that message, it makes the effort worthwhile — regardless of whether the students make a difference, Thorne said. And Thorne was well aware that contracts, rules and other forces beyond students' control make it highly unlikely that they will get what they want.
"Even if it doesn't work," she said, "we showed Mrs. Nazario that we love her. She sees almost 370 people are fighting for her."
Thorne and Knobl both said Gulf's loss is clearly Anclote's gain. Nazario said once she gets over the emotion of leaving Gulf, she'll put 150 percent into Anclote, giving the school her best.
But if Gulf High comes up with an open position that she can fill, Nazario added, she's there. "In a heartbeat," she said. "I'd even do student council again if I can stay."
Early Tuesday, rising senior Layla Friend, 16, approached Nazario at her desk in the Gulf High School media center, offering chocolate cupcakes with green icing.
Nazario politely declined. Then Friend said she made them just for the media specialist because she'll miss her next year.
"She's leaving, and she's awesome," Friend explained, as Nazario took a cupcake and reached out for a hug, tears in her eyes. "She's just awesome."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.