When I learned that Robert Vicari, the 50-year-old principal of Osceola Middle School, had agreed to become the principal at Lakewood High School, I wanted to know what motivated him. He is replacing Dennis Duda who is retiring.
Why would he leave Osceola Middle for Lakewood? After all, Osceola has been controversy-free and an A-rated school eight years in a row under his leadership. Lakewood, now D-rated, will receive the stringent oversight of a Florida Department of Education team that will monitor, among other areas, the school's disciplinary practices, grading, teaching methods and the hiring and dismissal of teachers.
"When I first moved to Florida in 1990, my first home was approximately 10 blocks away from Lakewood High," Vicari said. "I enjoyed my years in the Lakewood community. The other day, I read the newspaper article portraying Lakewood as a school facing challenges. It is difficult to overcome the stigma that this causes. But I see Lakewood as a school filled with great opportunity.
"We can improve Lakewood's performance. We must have high expectations of our students and staff, high academic standards and interesting and challenging courses. We must celebrate our success as we accomplish the goals we set, and we must get everyone involved. When I look back on my career years from now, I want to be satisfied that I made a positive difference by doing something meaningful."
Osceola's demographics are different from Lakewood's. Of Osceola's 1,184 students, 79.73 percent are white, only 11.82 percent are black and 5.57 percent are Hispanic. Lakewood has 1,718 students. Of that number, 51.11 percent are white, 37.60 percent are black and 6.87 percent are Hispanic.
Some black residents prefer a black principal at Lakewood, but Vicari said his experiences have prepared him for the school's demographic mix. In 1996, he served as acting assistant principal at Dixie Hollins, and he was assistant principal at Pinellas Park Middle from 1997-2001.
"Both schools had high minority rates, a large number of students on free or reduced lunch, a high mobility rate and other factors that made these schools similar to Lakewood," Vicari said. "I was proud of my accomplishments and successes at both schools."
Like other school leaders, Vicari has watched developments in the Bradley vs. Pinellas County School Board case and the proposed "memorandum of understanding" reached last week that deals with black student discipline, particularly the high rate of suspensions.
He said he has no problem with the stipulations in the memorandum that call for more staff training and self-assessments, and he has no objections to trying various so-called "interventions" before suspending students.
Vicari's two adult children attended public schools, an experience that deepened his sense of responsibility and his leadership style. The job of the principal, he suggests, is to create a place where students can learn at their best, where discipline is not just punishment.
"Students, staff and the community want a school that is safe and supportive, one they can be proud of," he said. "We must create a highly structured, well-organized environment. There is no substitute for solid, engaging, interactive and challenging instruction. We must focus on improving students' literacy and ability to present themselves. It all has to be done in a way that students recognize as relevant. We want our students to look forward to coming to school, and we need family and community partnerships."
The move to Lakewood suits Vicari in yet another way. Several years ago, at Duda's invitation, Vicari visited Lakewood's Center for Advanced Technologies. He was impressed with the center's robotics and research labs and later, during a second visit, by its broadcast studios. He wanted similar programs at Osceola.
After getting many ideas from Duda, Vicari, along with his staff, wrote and won a $1 million grant for Osceola to become a technology school. Its programs have won many awards. Students recently entered a project in a national competition.
Superintendent Julie Janssen was unequivocal when she told me why she chose Vicari to be Lakewood's principal: "Bob is the epitome of a school leader who fully understands what it takes to educate kids. He rolls up his sleeves to tackle any challenge, works collaboratively with staff and has a great rapport with students and families."