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New Gibbs High principal vows to take the Pinellas school from an "F" to a "B"

ST. PETERSBURG — Dirt-road sprints. Four blocks at a time.

Again. Again. Again.

The kid at Gibbs High was fast enough to get to the state track championship his junior year, but not fast enough to make the finals. The following summer, he pushed himself harder.

Now 45, Kevin Gordon still has a need for speed. As Gibbs' new principal, he must revive an F-rated school.

In his head, a stopwatch is ticking.

Since mid June, the 1982 Gibbs graduate has been working 11-hour days, preparing the foundation for a "100-point challenge" to his faculty. Under Florida's school grading formula, that's how many points it will take to lift Gibbs from an F to a B.

Gordon says Gibbs can do it in one year.

• • •

Gibbs has stumbled despite being part of the lifeblood of the black community. It has floundered even though the Pinellas school district spent $56 million rebuilding it. Walk into the spotless main office, with its royal blue carpet and hovering lights, and more than a dozen portraits of former Gibbs principals — most of them black men, distinguished and driven — stare.

They can't be happy.

In 2008, only 29 percent of Gibbs sophomores were reading at grade level. Among black sophomores, the number falls to 13 percent.

"I want Gibbs to live up to the pride that the community has in Gibbs," Gordon said.

He is soft spoken and low key. He is careful with his words. As a senior at Gibbs, he was named "best dressed," and if anything, he is more crisply tailored now.

He has been married three times. He has four sons, ages 27, 23, 10 and 6.

His parents are nurses. His father is a Gibbs graduate.

He says Gibbs is home.

A yearbook photo shows him on the basketball court, where he also starred, taking a shot while plowing through a defender. "No stopping me now," the caption says.

Gordon was the type of athlete "who would do fantastic even without a coach," said former track coach Gary Dedinsky, who was at Gibbs 33 years before leaving for Clearwater High in 2006. "You didn't have to think of motivational games to keep him interested."

A hamstring injury kept Gordon from the state track finals his senior year. But he was impressive enough to earn a track scholarship to Florida State, where he became an All-American.

His deep ties to Gibbs are giving him an early boost.

"He's a Gibbs alum," said supporter and St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis. "I'm sure he'll do all he can to muster the resources to motivate the kids and the parents to work hard."

"He'll be a role model," said Cassandra Jackson, a Gibbs parent and president of the football boosters. He can say, "I attended Gibbs. I was successful. I went off to college."

But Jackson and others also tempered their expectations.

Gordon can't do it alone, they said. A lot depends not only on what he does with Gibbs, but what the state and district do.

Said former Gibbs parent Sami Scott, "Without the resources, (Gordon) is just a body with a title."

• • •

Gordon earned an economics degree. He aimed for a career in finance.

In 1987, he was working at SunTrust bank when he was asked to do a business education activity at St. Petersburg High. In the classroom, something clicked.

"It was like, 'Wow, I really like this,' " he said.

Gordon taught social studies in middle school for six years.

He was an assistant principal at Clearwater High for seven years and principal at John Hopkins Middle for two.

At Gibbs, he's making $90,521 a year.

In 2005, then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox transferred Gordon from John Hopkins to High Point Elementary. Gordon said he doesn't know why Wilcox made the decision. He said he was disappointed.

"We were right in the middle of making some major changes," he said.

In the end, though, it prepared him well for Gibbs, he said.

Like Gibbs, High Point's demographics have been shifting rapidly, with more poor and minority students. During Gordon's term, they made strong gains in reading.

Gibbs will get a reading blitz, too, he said.

The school will hire more reading teachers; use more sophisticated tools to pinpoint reading deficiencies; and require history, science and other teachers to weave reading instruction into their content.

Gordon also vowed a different approach to student discipline, which teachers told him was their No. 1 priority. For students, there will be more awareness of expectations and consequences. For staff, more monitoring and enforcement.

Those changes can help Gibbs erase its scarlet letter, Gordon said. And there's no reason it can't happen soon.

Trying to climb from an F to a B in one year might be ambitious, he said. But it's not unrealistic.

"We tell our teachers we want high expectations for our students," he said. "Why should we be any different?"

Times staff writer Donna Winchester and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

New Gibbs High principal vows to take the Pinellas school from an "F" to a "B" 07/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 11:55pm]
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