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Teacher's dream comes full circle

Robert Vacari has a lot of energy. Sometimes too much, he says.

But as the new principal at Osceola Middle School, he'll most likely need every ounce of it. "This is the age where they test the water," he said of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. "But this is also the age where you really have the most impact."

Vacari was tapped by the school district this week to replace Fred Ulrich, now the new principal at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. Both appointments still have to be approved by the Pinellas County School Board, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday.

The approval is more of a technicality, and on Monday, the 43-year-old educator was unpacking boxes in his new office, which overlooks the bus loading and unloading zone.

Pretty good view for keeping an eye on things, right? Sure, Vacari says, but he won't be watching from his office.

"I'll be out there every morning and afternoon," he said, adding that he likes to be very visible on campus.

And he won't need much instruction on the layout of the grounds. Vacari began his career with the school district in 1990 at Osceola Middle, where he was hired as a teacher for the school's dropout prevention program. He did that for two years before becoming a social studies teacher at the school. Vacari moved in 1997 to Pinellas Park Middle School, where he was an assistant principal until his recent promotion.

Vacari says he fell in love with the Tampa Bay area when he attended the University of South Florida in Tampa. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science there before returning home to Long Island near New York City. He ran a construction company on the island and made pretty good money, he said.

But something was missing.

"I went into education because I didn't feel fulfilled in business," he said Monday as a light rain fell outside his office.

Vacari says he's always loved children, and teaching seemed like the right thing to do. So it was back to the classroom, where he received a master's degree in secondary education at Dowling College in Oakdale, Long Island.

Until this year, Osceola Middle, at 9301 98th St. N, had received C grades since the state's grading system began in 1999. The grades are based on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or the FCAT. This year the school got an A.

The grade is all the more sweet, Vacari says, considering the school's challenges. Among them is that more than 50 percent of Osceola's 1,150 students are from low-income homes, and about a quarter are bused from St. Petersburg. The distance makes it difficult for some parents to become involved in the school.

But the students' and faculty's hard work paid off.

"(Ulrich) managed to implement a lot of programs and I'm going to continue them and build on them," he said.

Ulrich says the school's A was partly due to an intensive literacy program. Also, the school saw a significant reduction in student suspensions for fighting last year. Part of the credit is given to Raise Your Standards, Not Your Fists, a program sponsored by Pinellas County Schools and the Pinellas County Health Department.

Vacari says he feels as if he has come full circle now that he is back at Osceola Middle. "In fact, I remember being a teacher and dreaming about being a principal here one day," he said.

Area superintendent Cathy Athanson said Vacari will bring much enthusiasm and professionalism to the school. "Osceola Middle has an excellent reputation, and he'll be able to build on that," she said.

Having a good reputation is more important than ever for schools as the district prepares for its new school choice plan. Parents can choose to keep their children in their current school, seek a spot in a countywide magnet or fundamental program, or apply for a school in their area of the county. This fall, parents will pick schools for 2003-04, when the plan begins.

Vacari says Osceola's computer labs and emphasis on technology will be strong selling points for the school. "You have to have attractors, and technology is definitely one," he said.

Vacari has been married for 20 years. His wife, Maryann, 42, is a nurse. The couple have two children: Branden, a 17-year-old senior at Northeast High School, and Lauren, a 12-year-old seventh-grader whose principal will be her dad.

Vacari volunteers as a soccer coach for recreation leagues. He also loves working with wood and built a wraparound deck at his home in northeast St. Petersburg. "Banging nails is a great stress reliever," he chuckled.