PORT RICHEY — The day Gulf Highlands Elementary got its F grade from the state, Pasco County superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she'd be looking to make changes to get the school back on track.
Less than a month later, Fiorentino has decided to remove principal Jill Middleton and place Kara Smucker, principal of A-rated Lake Myrtle Elementary School since 2007, in charge.
"Kara Smucker is a strong leader and we need at Gulf Highlands a definite change in direction," said David Scanga, assistant superintendent of elementary schools. "Kara has a huge challenge ahead of her, but I think she's the right person for the job."
Middleton will become an assistant principal at Schrader Elementary School.
"Jill is a good person and Jill gave it her best effort," Scanga said. "At this point in time, I think she can work with (Schrader principal) Tammy Berryhill to think about her administrative skills and work on those. We're not going to give up on Jill."
To make room for Middleton at Schrader, assistant principal Erika Tonello will transfer to a like position at Cypress Elementary. She will replace George Papaemanuel, who gets a promotion to principal at Mary Giella Elementary.
"I probably made a whole bunch of Cypress parents unhappy" by transferring Papaemanuel, Scanga said, acknowledging the high regard the longtime assistant principal has there. "But they'll say this is good for George. I firmly believe he is absolutely ready. He is going to bring good leadership to Mary Giella."
Smucker said she was honored to get the nod to improve Pasco's only F-rated elementary school.
"I am looking forward to working in that school community and making a difference," Smucker said.
She contacted Lake Myrtle employees and families on Tuesday to let them know of the move, which still requires School Board approval. She stressed that the inclusive approach she used at Lake Myrtle will remain her style at Gulf Highlands.
She said she had only begun to look at Gulf Highlands' test results to determine its immediate needs, but noted that math instruction appeared a strong candidate for change.
In 2008, more than half of Gulf Highlands students met grade- level expectations in math on the annual FCAT exam. This past year, just one-third of students achieved those levels. Just 29 percent of students made gains on the math test in the most recent administration.
The school saw decreases in achievement in reading, science and writing over the same period, as it dropped from a B to a C to an F.
Scanga said he is confident that Smucker can bring success to the struggling school.
"There are good people there … but obviously the data suggests the quality of instruction isn't where it needs to be," he said. "We need to get good leadership into the school and change the course."
Lake Myrtle Elementary now needs a new principal. The job is expected to be advertised shortly. Fiorentino also interviewed candidates Tuesday to run Shady Hills Elementary School.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.