LACOOCHEE — Daniel Vasquez was worried when Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning announced the restaffing of Lacoochee Elementary School in April.
Vasquez had worked at the school for just a few months on a temporary contract. Plus, state guidelines called for teachers at a turnaround school to have at least three years of demonstrated academic growth among their students.
Vasquez was a first-year teacher.
"The idea of not being here was frightening," he said. "I had confidence I could be of benefit here and could help."
The team of administrators charged with hiring Lacoochee's new faculty looked beyond years of experience and simple data, though. They wanted educators who understood effective teaching and critical thinking. They looked for teachers who not only understood data but also owned their results.
And they sought people who would "fit."
The process, Browning said, "was deliberate, intentional and systematic."
In the end, 17 Lacoochee teachers won their jobs back, along with 16 teachers who had taught elsewhere the year before.
They were veterans, like Lisa Mazza, who transferred from West Zephyrhills Elementary. And they were fresh faces, like Vasquez.
And with the mission of bolstering academic performance at the school, which earned three consecutive D grades from the state, they headed to campus last week for a three-day retreat aimed at the nuts and bolts of learning new ways to improve instruction, discipline and culture at the isolated school in rural northeastern Pasco.
"We're getting focused," Vasquez said as he took a break from a session on positive behavior support. "We're not wasting any time."
The dedication is evident, said Mazza, a teacher for more than 25 years.
"There's that aura that everybody is here for a purpose," she said after listening to Browning talk for an hour about expectations. "It's hard leaving a school where you've established a rapport. … But knowing that everybody is committed to a purpose here made it easier."
The purpose, Browning told the faculty, should not be about securing good test scores.
"I don't care about FCAT scores," he said.
Rather, he said, "I want you to teach your kids. … Give them every opportunity to learn."
Lead kindergarten teacher Jessica White, a sixth-year Lacoochee instructor, welcomed that opportunity.
She acknowledged that the weeks after Browning announced that Lacoochee would be restaffing were stressful. But the changes since have been exciting, said White, who attended the school as a child and whose mother worked there for several years.
"All of the training I have received … has literally changed my instruction," she said as she sat down for a lesson in using interactive notebooks with students. "I am excited for the day we get to celebrate our data."
Vasquez said he found the school retreat, which was all about the teaching craft, refreshing for the school that feels the pressure of high stakes.
"We're confident in ourselves," he said. "We're confident in our administration. We can turn this school around."
It helped, he said, that Browning eased the angst with words of support.
The superintendent pledged to help the school find a guidance counselor, which it hasn't had for two years. He promised to have the district support the school in its endeavors, rather than sending directives from on high.
"We're not going to come in and say, 'You must do this, and you must do it this way,'" Browning told the staff. "We have found it doesn't work."
Students learn differently in Lacoochee than they do in Trinity Oaks, he said, and so the school must find its own successful methods. Not only that, he added, but each kid in each classroom could have different skills and needs, so differentiated instruction will be key.
Also critical, he said, will be attendance. So teachers should take every opportunity they get to encourage parents to keep their children coming to classes.
His main message, though, was one of thanks.
"Thank you for accepting the challenge," Browning told the group. "Thank you for stepping up to the plate to make a difference in the lives of the children at Lacoochee Elementary … I expect great things out of Lacoochee Elementary School. I really do."
Those words mattered to Vasquez.
"Him coming out here was huge for us," he said. "It definitely was encouraging. I do feel like he relieved some pressure for us, although we know we have a sense of urgency."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.