Joe Clifford surveyed his new domain at Central High School. Moles had taken over the grounds and were on their way to the playing fields. Clifford waved his arm at a flower bed, where an uninvited plant had taken root. "This is stink vine," he said, pointing. "Molehills and stink vine! What kind of a message does this send to our students about how we care for our school?"
On the way to a nearby building, he stopped to pick up a discarded Big Mac wrapper and placed it in the garbage. In the weight room, he studied several holes along the walls.
"These need to be repaired immediately," he said.
He continued across the campus on this January morning, where he had been appointed midyear after the former principal, Dennis McGeehan, was tapped to open Weeki Wachee High School.
Over the next five months, Clifford would make Central High his own, staking the final chapter of his career on reversing its academic slide.
But on this day, one of his first on the job, he noted hallways to paint and landscaping to complete. He identified a barren spot in the middle of the grounds where he decided a waterfall should be created and then returned to his office, where there was also a budget to study and standardized test data to analyze.
More than 100 seniors — nearly a quarter of the class — had yet to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a requirement for graduation.
Welcome to Central, Mr. Clifford.
Officials are confident, but watching closely
After earning a grade of a "C" for nine straight years, Central, home to 1,715 students and 116 staffers, slipped to a "D" in 2007-08. Last year it earned a "D" again. As a result, with McGeehan's departure, the district faced limited options to replace him.
Florida's school accountability plan requires learning gains each year on the FCAT. When Central failed to make gains last year, it moved to a more stringent level of oversight.
"The state is looking at and monitoring Central," said Diane Dannemiller, supervisor of federal programs for the Hernando County schools. "If there is a change in principals, it needs to be someone who has turned around a similar school."
Under Clifford's leadership between 2002 and 2007, West Hernando Middle School improved from a "C" to an "A." J.D. Floyd K-8 School was already an "A" when he took the helm in 2008, but it maintained the grade and continued to make learning gains, Dannemiller said.
District officials have confidence in Clifford.
"Joe is one of those individuals who will move forward on any task you put before him," said assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson.
McGeehan and Clifford go back 30 years, having graduated together from Saint Leo University. While they speak highly of one another with terms like "good guy" and "great leader," their styles are different.
"Dennis (McGeehan) has strong organizational skills," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association. "He sets that foundation. Joe (Clifford) brings a boost of creativity. Joe is a different individual. Some of his ideas are progressive. They break the status quo."
Failure is not an option for students
Wearing his trademark blue jeans, light blue shirt and a red tie, Clifford paced before an auditorium of students. He needed a haircut, but had been too busy to get one.
On the job less than a month, he had cobbled together funds from the School Advisory Committee for an after-school program to help struggling students.
There's no graduating from high school in Florida without passing the FCAT, something the students sitting before him had yet to do, despite prior attempts. Here was a chance for after-school tutoring, with both a snack and transportation home provided.
The program was optional and free for students. He was here to tell them about it, and he needed them to pay attention.
"You can't even clean the toilets here without a high school diploma," Clifford said. Even cutting the grass at the school, he said, requires a diploma.
He went on to talk about the county's high unemployment rate.
"You think you're going to be able to compete?" Clifford asked.
Some students listened intently. A few giggled.
"I see some people who are kind of laughing," he said. "Here's another adult who is talking smack at me at 8 in the morning. Forty-five years ago, I was sitting right there. I didn't think I needed to listen to blah, blah, blah. And I failed. I got left back right into my younger brother's grade."
For a moment, the room grew quiet.
"I didn't like how it felt to be a failure," he told the students. "I promised I would never do it again."
High school was hard for Clifford as student
The oldest of eight children, Clifford, 59, grew up in New York. School wasn't easy for him. He struggled with reading.
After failing his last year at a public high school, his parents sent him to a military Catholic boarding school to repeat his senior year. While there, he didn't pass senior English and had to attend summer school to get his diploma.
"I'm far from stupid," Clifford said. "I had to work harder. I had to learn how to learn."
After a year of community college, during which time he lived at home and drove a cab, a friend of his brother's came home for Christmas from Saint Leo University in Pasco County. Clifford liked what he heard about the school and decided to apply.
It was 1971; Clifford was 20 years old.
"I told my dad I borrowed the money to go to school and I'd be leaving in August," Clifford said. "I felt like it was best for me to move on with my life."
Clifford graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Within a few years, he began working as a teacher in Hernando County. He later returned to school at the University of South Florida for a master's in guidance and counselor education and took additional courses for his leadership certification.
Along the way, one of his younger brothers, Bobby, died of AIDS after a struggle with drug use and heroin addiction. The death has had a lasting impact on Clifford.
"My brother is dead as a result of drugs," he said. "I don't smoke or drink. I passionately believe you can only be your best when you are in full control of all your faculties. You can't do that when you're high on drugs or alcohol."
"Did it change my life?" he said. "Yes. Whenever you're standing in a hospital room watching someone who was a vibrant part of your family dying from decisions he made, you change. It changed our whole family."
He wants the best, and hires them away
One morning while reviewing Central's action plan Clifford stopped the conversation in mid-sentence. His cell phone was ringing, and the number made him smile.
"I have to close this deal," he said.
Clifford has worked in Hernando County since 1978. He knows a lot of good teachers. Now, facing the biggest challenge of his career, he needed them all on the Joe Clifford Express. He needed them at Central, if the school was going to improve its state grade.
On this particular day, he was looking for a guidance counselor and was hoping to persuade Rolando Herrera, who was working at Nature Coast Technical High School, to take the job.
The two had worked together at Powell Middle School, and both men had talked about wanting an opportunity to work together again before they retired.
Bringing a new philosophy to a school was appealing to Herrera.
"I'm going to be 58 next week," he said at the time. "I need something to look forward to each day. This is going to be exciting.
"Joe does what he needs to surround himself with the best people," Herrera said. "And that turns out to be a good place to work. It's a fun place, too. He takes care of his people, probably like no other principal."
Herrera signed the transfer paperwork.
Clifford's recruiting practices don't make him popular with some fellow administrators across the district.
But he doesn't apologize. He's been put in charge of a struggling school, and needs to change things in a hurry. Central needs to raise its achievement levels or face further state sanctions. The way he sees it, it's an emergency for the entire school district.
"I'm out there to get the brightest and the best," he said. "I'm going to do what I have to do to turn this school around."
No drill sergeant, just a laid-back approach
Many new principals clamp down hard on the student body when they take over a troubled high school. Clifford did the opposite.
Freshman Morgan Smith described her new principal this way: "He's kind of laid-back, but he doesn't let things go that need to be addressed."
"He's still strict," said sophomore Trey Adams. "His thing is all about respect. You have to follow the rules we still have. If a teacher asks you to do something, do it right away."
Previously, eating outside had been off-limits.
Now students are allowed to eat in the school's courtyard, which under Clifford's stewardship began to resemble a college campus or hotel lobby. The landscaping, much of which was donated or sold at reduced prices, has given new life to the grounds. The waterfall has been completed, and speakers play music throughout the day.
"Since we have more privileges, we have more responsibilities," said sophomore Ana Bui. "We can eat outside, but we have to maintain it. We can listen to our iPods between classes and at lunch, but we can't abuse it during class."
The new rules didn't work for everyone.
"I was more comfortable with the previous rules," said media specialist Sue Kern. "I knew what to expect from students, and they knew what to expect from me."
Many teachers weren't sure how students would handle the increased freedom.
"There was a time of adjustment for us as well as the students," said career specialist David George. "There were questions. How would students respond to the privilege of a little more responsibility? For the most part, they responded well. I've been impressed."
"A little more freedom is good as long as the students respect that," said math teacher Larry Vanderbie.
Success of students, school takes a team
On a recent morning, Clifford sipped a cup of Tazo Calm tea and discussed strategies for raising student achievement.
"There's a litany of things that have to happen," he said.
In the classroom, Clifford is looking for clarity in what's being taught, right down to a posted agenda, the learning standard and key questions.
"We expect instruction bell to bell, from the first day to the last day," said Clifford. And teachers need a plan for determining how well students learned their lessons.
Teachers also need a clear understanding of individual students' capabilities, and instruction needs to address weak areas, he said.
More training has been provided to help teachers understand and use test data.
"We're seeing that not everyone really understands how to use data," said assistant principal Latressa Jones. "Teachers have seen the scores. The question was what to do next."
No one is expected to go it alone. The administration has focused on communication and collaboration.
"We're doing it together," said Jones. "It's not like, 'You make it work.' It's more like, 'Let us show you how, and what we don't know we'll learn together.' "
Lots of work still needs to be done
Five months into Clifford's time at Central, and as the end of the school year neared, FCAT scores began trickling in, beginning with the retakes — students who had already failed once or twice, and might not graduate.
The results weren't great, and they prompted drastic action.
"They set us on fire," said Jones.
Next fall, juniors and seniors who have not passed the FCAT will be required to stay after school twice a week for tutoring.
"Students no longer have the right to fail," Clifford said. "I invoked a little-known state statute that allows me to keep students after school as long as I provide transportation."
A contract has been drawn up: the FCAT Failure Agreement. Parents, students and school officials are in the process of discussing and signing the new plan.
The school is also working to catch struggling students much earlier.
"We're approaching them and saying, 'We're not waiting until you are a senior,' " said assistant principal Laura Kane. " 'Let's fix this now.' "
The lowest-performing 5 percent of schools across the state qualify for additional "turnaround" funding, which ranges from $500,000 to $800,000. Central won't know exactly how much additional funding is coming until this summer, but administrators hope to hire new intervention specialists for math, reading and special-needs students, and an academic and behavior problem-solving specialist.
When school resumes in August, about 25 percent of the faculty and staff will have changed since the start of the previous school year. Some faculty members will have left to help open Weeki Wachee High School; others will have transferred, retired or moved on.
Not everyone is a match for what Clifford calls the "philosophical direction" of the school.
"People are used to the status quo, and then you come in with (Clifford)," said Vitalo. "The world is turned upside down. He has different expectations. He can be strenuous, and this can be stressful."
Clifford says it's all about moving Central forward.
"Everyone doesn't agree with me, but my primary direction is to do what I think is right for kids," he said.
Clifford says he loves his job. He relates to his students and sees himself as an example of someone who got sidetracked as a kid and eventually found his way.
And he's determined not to fail in his mission to improve the standing of Central and its students.
"We are not a 'D' school, but a school that is going to become the landmark high school in this district," he said.
Shary Lyssy Marshall is a former Connecticut school principal and administrator. She began reporting on Joe Clifford's transition to Central High School in December and followed his progress over the course of the past semester. She can be reached at [email protected]