NEW PORT RICHEY — Jason Joens has big plans for Gulf Middle School.
As the new academic year approaches, the principal is adding courses and teachers, setting higher expectations, and working to better connect with nearby Gulf High, where nearly all his students land in ninth grade.
"Gulf Middle School has gone without some things that would have helped students be more engaged," said Joens, who took over as principal in July upon the retirement of Stan Trapp, who led the school for 11 years. "Engagement is the No. 1 hurdle."
As recently as 2009, Gulf Middle earned an A in the state's accountability grading system and had a strong reputation. Since then, though, its grade declined steadily, to a D for the past three years.
Fewer than half the students scored at grade level or better on the 2014 FCAT in any subject area. The school has had one of the county's highest rates of students missing 20 or more days of class a year, despite first attacking the problem in 2011.
"Some students did not even see how to get out of middle school, or (see) high school as an option to them," said Marsha Van Hook, a district principal coach who worked with Gulf last year.
In interviews with students, particularly the ones deemed "off track," Joens discovered a disconnect between what the school offered and what interested them. He decided to add more than a dozen new after-school activities, for which the primary requirement will be good class attendance.
He hired a new drama teacher, who will build Gulf Middle's first theater program from scratch, and brought in a new band director who will add chorus, drumline and dance.
The school will continue to offer sports and other clubs, as Joens aims to get as many students as possible involved in activities outside the classroom. If they feel more a part of Gulf, he suggested, then they are more likely to attend, listen and learn.
The effort does not stop there.
Gulf Middle will offer more after-school help for students and add teacher training. The hated intensive reading courses, for students at the lowest performance levels on state tests, will change so students are also learning social studies content and not just reading.
Within a year, the school intends to offer introductory computer gaming and simulation courses for students interested in Gulf High's career academy. Teachers from the middle and high school already have begun meeting to discuss better ways to align their instruction, so students don't feel lost.
"We have to look at their education as 6-12," said Gulf High principal Kim Davis. "You've got to quit looking at them as elementary, middle and high."
Davis praised Joens' initiative, saying she shares his priorities.
"If you can't find a way to meet kids' needs, then why are we here?" Davis said.
Along with these steps come actions aimed at atmosphere.
Maintenance crews repainted the buildings. They reconfigured the courtyard, where students can mingle before classes, rather than waiting in the street for school to open.
Student safety in the mornings has been a big parent concern.
To make sixth-graders feel more comfortable, Gulf Middle set orientation a week earlier than the open house for other students. It relocated classes so sixth-graders are separated from seventh- and eighth-graders. And Joens assigned himself to be the sixth-grade administrator, so all parents and children get to know him as they enter the school.
The middle school adopted the high school's mascot, the Buccaneers, and created a new logo based on student recommendations. Before the year is up, Joens said, he hopes to have most students sporting school "swag" — a T-shirt, pencil or some logo item — so they identify with Gulf.
As students increasingly see Gulf Middle in a positive light, he said, their classroom attendance and performance should rise.
"We are changing expectations here," Joens said.
With all those changes, Joens gave his staff the choice of whether to stay. Forty-six percent of the teachers left.
In addition to new faculty, Gulf also will have new academic coaches, added social workers and a new assistant principal as the 2014-15 year begins.
Assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said she couldn't be more pleased with the work that Joens, who led River Ridge Middle for 11 years, has done to get Gulf Middle on the right path.
"Jason's philosophy truly is a philosophy of servant leadership," she said. "He's going in and asking, 'What can I do for you?' That is the right question to open the door with."
One measure of success for Joens will be to see more families seeking to enroll in Gulf Middle than opt to go elsewhere. This coming year, that isn't the case.
By paying attention to the students and parents when they say what isn't working for them, Joens said, things should change.
Sixth-grade orientation at Gulf Middle is scheduled for Aug. 13. Classes begin Aug. 18.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.