Alonso High School principal Kenneth Hart is not the retiring type. He tried that once. And it wasn't for him. After a 30-year career in education — mostly spent in his native New Jersey as a classroom teacher, wrestling coach, assistant principal, assistant schools superintendent and high-school principal — Hart retired to Apollo Beach about 10 years ago.
He was bored stiff.
Soon, he volunteered at a juvenile detention center, teaching mathematics, working in accord with the Hillsborough County School District. When offered a return to the classroom, he jumped at the chance for reinvigoration, eventually becoming an assistant principal and then a principal at Madison Middle School, then principal at Monroe Middle School, where he helped transform a D-performing school to a few points shy of an A-performing school in two years.
He began as Alonso's principal in January 2015.
Hart, who turns 70 in February, recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times correspondent Joey Johnston about his non-traditional rise back to administration and how the school coped with the September death of former student Jose Fernandez, a major-league baseball player and former Ravens pitcher.
Jose Fernandez died on a Sunday in a boating accident. What was that Monday like at Alonso High School?
Jose had been gone for a while (graduating in 2011), but everyone knows him so the impact was enormous. The faculty took the biggest emotional hit. Jose was such a personality, such a force. He took over the school because he had a personality that didn't quit. But coming over from Cuba, he had to make a transition. The faculty helped him graduate. The people who helped him most were the English teachers, the math teachers, the social studies teachers. He established a great relationship with the administrators. He was drawn to the custodial staff and the kitchen staff. Jose was a hero to them. Our students know of Jose, of course, and the baseball team knows him. But so many faculty and staff, the people on campus who knew him best, really took it hard.
You're almost 70 and you're a high-school principal. Why are you still working?
Age is a number. I stay healthy and do pretty rigorous workouts. I watch my weight. I eat healthy. I take pride in saying I can outdo a lot of 40-year-olds. Very few people with whom I speak have any idea I'm sitting at that age (nearly 70). They think low 50s. I feel good. I am eager to go every day.
Retirement didn't work for you?
I'm not wound that way. It didn't fit my lifestyle. My mom and dad were very active until they passed. She was a nurse. He worked on the railroad in New Jersey. They went to work every day, sick or not. Maybe it gets in your genes or it's something you learn and see. Look, I love to sit and read. My wife and I love to go to the beach. And I realize that sometimes doing nothing is actually doing something. But for me, that only works for a short time.
You lead one of Hillsborough County's largest high schools. How do you feel about that responsibility?
I feel it every day. It's an awesome responsibility. I don't know if some of the young bucks and buckettes coming up truly understand the scope of this position. We're talking $100-million (in facilities). If the air conditioner goes out and it affects what we're doing, I must respond. We've got 165 teachers and (nearly 2,800) students. What's going on in our classrooms? Our kids sometimes come here with a lot of baggage. It's not limited to race, religion or where you live. Kids from Westchase have issues just like the kids from Town 'N Country. Sometimes, I sit back and say, 'Whew! There's a lot to do here.' A lot of plates spinning. We're responsible for each plate. We're serving a multi-course dinner here.
What makes for a great day?
Walking around the building, having our kids respond to what we want them to understand. Seeing them show respect. I probably say hello to 50 kids before I get to the flagpole (in the morning). Kids are now saying hello back, giving me a fist bump, shaking my hand. That's part of my job. Visiting the classrooms, showing support for the teachers, that's part of my job. Showing my presence. I firmly believe you have to inspect what you expect or you're not going to get it. Just seeing kids learn, being respectful, being fulfilled, that means everything to me.
What was it like to return to the classroom?
My first job back was at Eisenhower Middle School. Math teacher. I loved it. I think it gave me better insight into who the kids are today. They aren't what they were when I began as a teacher (in 1969).
Did the kids change?
I think the world changed. Families changed. Both parents began working and some kids came home to no one. Single-parent homes. Kids being raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles. Same kids largely, but different dynamics. Those things, in my opinion, have changed a lot of things.
What is your philosophy on student behavior and discipline?
Sometimes, we have to change a mindset. They're not coming here to play. They're not coming here to fight. They're coming here to learn. And that's what we try to instill. I'm a pretty hard-line guy. I don't want to say completely black and white — I know there's a lot of gray — but we have to deal with situations as they occur. The theme is you're responsible for your actions. There must be accountability and that may look different from kid to kid, but every single kid needs to do certain things. It starts with respect, commitment, attendance, things like that. If those fundamental things aren't there, those behaviors must be changed. Or else they're not coming to school for the right reasons and we have to find them a different type of environment in which to learn. We can't have kids cursing out teachers or doing whatever they want. It doesn't work that way. There must be structure.
What's the perception of Alonso High School?
Quite frankly, we are not Sickles. We are not Steinbrenner. We are not Plant. Some people think we are. There was a time when we were (predominantly) Westchase and we aren't anymore. We have a mixed population with 60 percent of our kids Hispanic. Our kids are exposed to different cultures, races, religions, ethnicities. You name it, we've got it. We embrace that. Coming out of Alonso, not only will you get a great education, but you'll be exposed to things you're going to see when you graduate and step out into the world.
Alonso's latest rating was as a C-school. How will you go about improving that?
The person least happiest about our grade is looking at you right now. I'm not blaming anyone, but we have to do better. Some people say, "If you look at your socio-economic student profile, Alonso ranks at the top of similar schools. You're a high C.'' I want to be an A and we will be an A-school again, I assure you. We rank top five in some areas of our (Advanced Placement) scores, but in other areas, we dropped. We will turn this around. We don't pick our kids. If you live in our boundaries and you come to school here, you're an Alonso Raven. I don't care if you're from Westchase or Town 'N Country. It doesn't make a difference. No matter where you come from, no matter who you are, no matter who your daddy is, once you step foot on this campus, our job is to educate you.
Sunday Conversation is edited for clarity and brevity. Contact Joey Johnston at email@example.com.