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Striving for a turnaround, Lacoochee Elementary gets a new leader and an old friend

LACOOCHEE

On the job less than an hour, new principal Latoya Jordan asked for a tour of the Lacoochee Elementary School campus. Assistant plant manager Jamie Lopey led the way, showing Jordan the fifth grade classrooms and the speech pathology lab. He pointed out newly painted walls and freshly waxed floors. Then, as he opened the door leading to the playground, he turned and said, "I don't know if you remember this. It's been some time since you were here." Jordan smiled broadly. "I remember all of this," she said, taking in the view.

In the mid 1970s, Jordan was a student at Lacoochee Elementary. Now she's leading the effort to turn around the struggling school, chosen by superintendent Kurt Browning as part of a state-mandated staff shakeup.

Standing in just the right spot under the school's covered play area, she could see the affordable housing unit where she grew up with her mom and siblings.

"Everglade Court, Apartment 21," Jordan, 39, said almost automatically. "I lived there until sixth grade."

No one cut her any slack while she attended the isolated, rural northeast Pasco school serving primarily children in poverty.

"The teachers at Lacoochee never treated us like we were poor," she said. "The expectations were always high."

Now Jordan plans to repay the favor.

• • •

"There is a great deal at stake," Browning said. And Jordan "gets it. She understands the mission."

That is to take Lacoochee, on the verge of a third consecutive D grade from the state, to the point where students consistently meet or exceed academic expectations. No excuses.

Already, Browning has overhauled the faculty. About half the teachers who reapplied for their jobs weren't hired.

The superintendent plucked Jordan from her assistant principal job at nearby Cox Elementary, where she helped improve a school that had failed to make adequate progress for years.

She knows how to use student data to drive instructional decisions, said Monica Ilse, a district learning community executive director. At the same time, Ilse said, Jordan understands the importance of educators relating to their students.

And she offers a positive example for the children of Lacoochee.

"They can identify with someone who went to that school and is now a success," said Shanika Graves, a friend from Florida State University. "And their principal is someone who is going to support them and go to bat for them."

Tiffany Cutlip attested to that.

Cutlip, a 23-year-old Florida Gulf Coast University graduate student, was in Jordan's first class, at Pasco Elementary in 1999. They remain in touch.

"She cared so much about her students," Cutlip said. "It wasn't just our test scores or our grades. She just wanted to push us to not think that anything was too big to dream or accomplish. ... Everyone was the same, and she wanted everyone to see that."

That disposition made it tough for Jordan to take the reader comments under recent news stories about Lacoochee's woes. Some people said the school and its students were beyond repair.

"That really touched who I am," she said. "When they say these negative things about those kids, they are talking about me."

• • •

Walking the Lacoochee campus brought a flood of memories — the Spanish teacher who used to call Jordan "Lucinda," the music room that doubled as the spot for summer games and art projects. Lopey, who was a year behind Jordan in school, had his share of recollections, too.

He remembered Jordan and his older sister as fast friends, never letting him forget he was younger.

"They always thought they were my mom," he said. "They always told me what to do."

Jane Graham said her daughter was a "take-charge person" for as long as she could recall. She liked to lead, and to straighten out kids who misbehaved.

She played teacher for the neighborhood kids, when they weren't racing in the streets.

"She is very no nonsense, but she's a polite no nonsense," Graham said, noting Jordan still calls her elders "ma'am" and "sir."

She's also family oriented. After graduating from Florida State and considering a move out of Florida, Jordan decided to take a Dade City teaching job. She visits her grandmother every night, unless her nieces or nephews have an event. She calls her closest friends daily.

And, like her mom, who works for Mid Florida Services helping families pay their electric bills, she welcomes needy outsiders into her extended family. Even while working at Cox Elementary, Jordan tutored Lacoochee children.

Growing up, "it would be like, oh, someone else is staying with us," Jordan said. "Who I am is just someone who truly cares about people. That is just the way I was raised."

• • •

At first, Jordan figured she'd teach just long enough to pay off her student loans.

Then: "After my first week, I knew this is where I belong."

Jordan felt a connection to her students. She wanted them to benefit from their teacher in the same way she had.

"I could name just about every teacher I've had, from pre-K to twelfth grade, who had a positive impact on my life," she said.

She began reciting names: Mrs. Bonti, English. Mr. McFadden, chemistry.

She wanted to be like them, making words on paper come alive. She recalled how student Justin Garza one day connected multiplication to buying multiple items at the flea market and having to figure the cost.

"You make things real to them," Jordan said. "There are ways."

A few years in, principal Barbara Munz told Jordan they should be colleagues. Flattered, Jordan pursued a move from teaching to administration.

She became an assistant principal at Cox and took the district's leadership training, receiving rave reviews.

Educators at Cox, from the principal on down, lauded Jordan for her work in helping the once-struggling school improve.

"She listens," Cox fourth grade teacher Janella Anselmo said. "Anything you come to her with, she'll help you find a solution."

• • •

Finding solutions is what Browning had in mind when he chose Jordan without seeking any other applicants.

Jordan has a few non-negotiables. Every student must be treated with dignity. Low expectations are not acceptable.

Within those guidelines, she expects teamwork.

"I don't believe in top-down," she said. "We need to sit down as a team, talk through what has been tried and what changes we can make as a team."

At the end of their tour through Lacoochee Elementary last week, Lopey jokingly reminded Jordan that, while they might be co-workers and old friends, she's the boss.

He showed her to her new parking space, pointing at the "Reserved for principal" sign above the empty spot. She had parked in the middle of the lot.

Jordan laughed, as it sank in.

"I got it," she said. "I got it."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

Striving for a turnaround, Lacoochee Elementary gets a new leader and an old friend 07/07/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 7, 2013 10:54pm]
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