BROOKSVILLE — John Stratton worried about the new girl.
The brown-haired 10th-grader arrived Wednesday morning at the STAR Education Center, landing there for truancy and behavior issues.
A couple of hours later, she sat in the back of a classroom with a sullen look on her face.
"She's not thrilled about being here," said Stratton, STAR's principal. "I was happy she was in class.
Many of the 77 students currently at the county's alternative school for grades 6-12 likely feel the same way, Stratton acknowledges.
Some wind up there for chronic behavioral issues, others for one doozy of a mistake. For some, the school off Broad Street just north of Brooksville Elementary is the last chance to shape up before expulsion.
Stratton, in his first year at the school, is new, too. But the 43-year-old father of two says he's pleased to be there.
He says he realized about two decades ago that he had a knack for bringing out the best in troubled students, so he jumped when the STAR position opened.
"I absolutely want this school to be the best it can be," Stratton said. "I want it to have a good name. When the other secondary principals send students here, they should know they're getting a quality education and we're working on their behavior."
Stratton, a St. Petersburg native, didn't plan on a career in education, though his mother worked as an elementary school teacher.
Early in his days at the University of South Florida, however, he helped run a St. Petersburg recreation center. He found himself drawn to teenagers, especially those with behavioral issues.
When asked why, he smiled and admitted he isn't quite sure.
"Other than being incredibly patient, I don't know, because I had a rather traditional upbringing," he said.
He went on to graduate with a bachelor's degree in special education. Later, he earned a master's degree in educational leadership.
He landed his first job as a high school teacher at the Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport for children who are severely emotionally disturbed.
"I loved it," Stratton recalls. "I felt it came easily."
Stratton moved to Hernando County and commuted for 11 years to Citrus County's Crest School for physically and mentally disabled students, where he worked as a middle and high school teacher.
From 1997 to 2001, he served as a behavioral and staffing specialist at the Renaissance Center, Citrus County's equivalent to STAR.
Stratton said the experience at Renaissance, coupled with the next four years as an assistant principal at Crystal River Elementary, where he focused on general education curriculum, helped round out his resume.
In 2005, he joined the Hernando district as a middle school assistant principal at Challenger K-8 in Spring Hill. He was wrapping up his first year as assistant principal at Central High School when then-superintendent Wayne Alexander decided to change leaders at STAR. Stratton applied and got the job.
"When I moved into the county, there were a few schools that were of interest, and this was certainly one of them," Stratton said. "I feel like I've come full circle."
John Shepherd, a veteran educator who had served as STAR's principal for the past 12 years, didn't want to leave. Alexander didn't give a specific reason for moving him to an assistant principal post at Eastside Elementary, Shepherd recalled last week.
"But I told him the best person for the (STAR) job would be John Stratton," Shepherd said.
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STAR, which stands for Students at Risk, has its roots in the so-called Opportunity School that opened in Lake Lindsey in 1976. Two years later, the school moved to its current location on Varsity Drive.
After a few location changes in the early 1990s, the school moved back to Varsity in 1996 and took the STAR name.
Within the school is the Technology Oriented Performance Program, or TOPP, which is not necessarily for students with behavior problems. The program is designed to help those behind in credits or struggling with a low grade-point average.
Alexander, during his tenure, had threatened to close STAR and create a program on another existing campus. Stratton says he's convinced the school must remain separate in order to send a message to the students who are there for behavior problems.
That way, he said, "they are earning their way in and earning their way out."
The goal is almost always to get students back into their home schools, though some will always do better in a smaller environment. But Stratton says STAR should strive to give kids more options while they are there. Currently, with just 10 instructional staffers and a need to keep class sizes small, that's a tall order. For example, the school does not offer physical education.
Stratton said he will seek to forge partnerships with other high schools. Staffers might come to STAR, or students could travel to other campuses to earn credits. Hernando High, for example, might lend a hand for performing arts, he said.
"Maybe we send them over there one class at a time to see how they adapt to a larger campus," he said.
That would also help officials determine whether students are ready to head back to their home schools on a permanent basis, he said.
The school should soon have a part-time guidance counselor, Stratton said.
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STAR has been too small to earn a grade in the state's accountability system based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. But the population was almost large enough by last year, so Stratton predicts the added stress that comes with more scrutiny is inevitable.
Stratton is working on a shoestring discretionary budget of $40,000. Still, the oak-tree-shaded campus of about 12 small buildings — some 3 decades old, others built a few years ago — is looking better already, staffers said. New paint and carpet can go a long way.
"We've always been the bottom of the barrel for everything," said Nicole Angell, who started her teaching career at STAR three years ago. "Last of the textbooks, last of the technology. The money usually runs out before it reaches us. (Stratton's) goal is to have the money reach us. I think he's going to make it happen."
For many STAR students, though, role modeling is just as important as technology or exam prep, Stratton said.
"You develop relationships," he said, "and if you can get some of these kids to have a relationship with an adult, a mentor on campus, that's what usually turns them around."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.