TARPON SPRINGS — Clint Herbic never thought about being a principal.
He entered Kansas State University on scholarship with the intent of becoming an architectural engineer. But a year in, his love for basketball led him to change direction and become a teacher and coach.
He followed that path for about 16 years until a former principal planted the idea of leading a school.
Now Herbic, 46, has become principal at Tarpon Springs High. He says his time as a classroom teacher and a coach have prepared him for taking Tarpon Springs High from a D-rated school where teacher morale is low in a different direction.
"The most important thing is giving teachers their voice on decisions so we can turn this thing around and get rid of that D," Herbic said. "They are the people who are going to make that happen."
Herbic said he also will rely on the school's deep tradition, heritage and community ties.
"Students, parents and in some cases grandparents went here and that's a strength to play on," Herbic said. "I will challenge the students, 'For your parents and your grandparents, let's turn this thing around.' "
Herbic said he doesn't want to be seen as someone who is mandating change. But at the same time, some things must change.
For the last two years, the school with the stellar veterinary, culinary and music programs has been a "D" performing school. In addition, a 2008-09 survey conducted by the district showed that many of the school's teachers believed morale was at an all-time low.
"Morale, by far, is at its worst level in the 20-plus years that I have been at Tarpon HS," one survey responder wrote.
Melissa Hill, president of the school's Parent Teacher Student Association and an elementary school teacher in Tarpon Springs, is ecstatic about Herbic's approach. Hill, her husband, mother and daughter all graduated from Tarpon High. Her son now attends the school. Hill said within a week of Herbic's Nov. 30 arrival, he had meetings with several school committees.
"He has a lot of energy and ideas to take us to another level," Hill said. "He's willing to think outside the box and he has a curriculum background. He knows what children need to learn and the steps to make that happen.
"He's in the hallways every day, in the classroom with the teachers and with the community. He's out there and that's so refreshing."
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Herbic arrived in Pinellas County in 1988 after graduating from Kansas State and signing a contract to teach social studies at Seminole Middle School.
After three years, Herbic moved to Seminole High, where he taught social studies and worked as the assistant basketball coach. Two years later, he landed at Dunedin High, where he taught social studies and served as the boys basketball coach for 11 years.
Herbic led Dunedin's basketball team to the first round of the state playoffs twice.
Being a coach prepared him to be a principal because it "taught me how to handle egos and the importance of having a plan," he said. "You have to have a plan and stick with it. And coaching taught me that you have to have a plan for the right reason."
While at Dunedin, Herbic ran into his principal from Seminole High. Curtis Geer suggested that he consider being a principal. The thought of leaving the classroom and coaching had never crossed Herbic's mind.
"He always had a no-nonsense approach to things and lots of energy," said Geer, 72, who retired in 1992 after 31 years in education in Pinellas County.
"If you are going be a high school principal, you've got to have a lot of energy because you have to be everywhere at once."
Herbic took the advice and earned his master's in educational leadership from the University of South Florida in 2002.
After five years as an assistant principal at Lakewood High, Herbic made brief stops at Gibbs and Northeast high schools.
On Nov. 30, he replaced Tarpon principal Kent Vermeer, who was no longer able to work the job full time because of medical reasons. He is now the district's supervisor of exceptional student education.
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Herbic walked across Tarpon Springs High's expansive campus this week greeting students, asking those who had on hats to remove them and chastising those using cell phones. School rules prohibit wearing hats, even outside a building, and using personal electronic devices, but those bans haven't always been enforced.
As the bell sounded, the school grounds became quiet.
"The first day I walked around, I didn't see kids out," Herbic said. "I'm used to seeing more kids out and about during classes. The first impression I got was the kids are here for an education."
Herbic is open to bringing more specialized programming like the veterinary science program. Those programs attract great students, he said. But the focus will be on student reading and comprehension abilities and ensuring that students are placed in classes where they are learning and succeeding.
The most important element of his game plan are teachers.
"You can talk about a kids' home life, what they did or didn't learn at middle school, but at the high school level, if you have a good teacher in the classroom, he or she can make a difference despite what the state tells us we have to do," Herbic said. "And when your No. 1 interest is the kids, almost anything will work. You may have some issues, but the plan will work."