TAMPA — Through 38 years of education — through the 1977 popularity of open classrooms, computers rising from novelty to the norm and magnet schools becoming mainstream — one constant remained in Tony Colucci's career.
His passion for working with wayward students.
Colucci always welcomed kids who needed the most help: those with emotional disturbances, those who others simply had written off as lost causes.
"Kids that nobody else wants — that's my kid," he said. "I want that kid."
After 38 years of helping students who no one else wanted, Colucci — a King High School graduate — recently retired as principal of Bowers-Whitley Career Center where he was the lead administrator for 11 years.
One of four Hillsborough County District School career centers, Bowers-Whitley helps students who have fallen far behind in their credits obtain a standard high school diploma and prepare to enter the workforce.
To attend, students must be 16 years old and at least a year behind in school. Students accepted into the school automatically are placed in the 11th grade and can earn a performance-based high school diploma, a state of Florida high school diploma (GED), and career certification.
Students chose from several certification subjects: automotive technology, culinary arts, nursing or sports marketing. After completing a certificate program, students can either get a job or continue on to community college.
Colucci said he has worked to create a family-like atmosphere at Bowers-Whitley that makes the school an inviting place for students.
"Kids who were thinking about dropping out, who are unmotivated, who never saw a reason to go to school — here they get a reason," he said.
Cheyenne Brazell, 17, says she was failing her classes at Gaither High School before transferring to Bowers-Whitley. Now Brazell — who's studying automotive technology — performs well academically thanks to encouragement from the teaching staff and Colucci, who she says is "a good influence on me."
"Here, my teachers and Dr. C keep pushing me," she said. "It's nice to have something like that."
Colucci's mission to help students succeed extends to the faculty as well, said culinary arts teacher Cheryl White.
"He's the best leader that I've ever worked for," she said. "I have someone who says 'Yes, we can do it' and 'Yes, we'll find a way,' " she said.
Colucci says his retirement isn't by choice. As a Florida public employee, Colucci participates in the state's DROP or Deferred Retirement Option Program. Retire now, and he can collect 6 percent interest on his retirement funds instead of 1 percent if he waited until next year to bow out.
Colucci said students deemed difficult to teach always drew his attention. The early years of his career involved teaching special-needs students and he eventually earned his first principal assignment in 1994.
Ten years later he was named principal at the newly opened Bowers-Whitley, which is in north Tampa, after expressing interest in "opening a school from ground zero and mold it."
During his time at Bowers-Whitley, Colucci said he has worked to ensure students are prepared fully for the workforce. That includes partnering with Suncoast Credit Union to help students with money management and requiring students to wear attire that reflects their careers. For example, nursing students wear scrubs.
"If you want to be a nurse, you're going to walk like a nurse, talk like a nurse, and dress like a nurse," Colucci said.
Colucci said he's most proud to see the graduation rates at Bowers-Whitley increase during his time as principal.
The number of students earning a high school diploma, especially, is outnumbering those who complete GEDs, he said.
"It's a tremendous feeling when they graduate because that's a kid who made it who could have dropped out," he said.
Sadly, Colucci said there have been students he was unable to reach. A few students have been killed, or jailed, or committed suicide. Others joined gangs or used drugs, he said.
But of the "thousands" of students Colucci estimates that he's helped, the majority "have turned it around," he said.
"I've had kids who were challenging but I never blamed the kid," he said. "I always blamed the environment."
While he's no longer the school's leader, Colucci said he expects to regularly visit Bowers-Whitley. His official last day is Nov. 30 but he's already stepped down from day-to-day operations. The school district recently selected Van Buren Middle School principal Derrick Gaines to replace Colucci.
Looking back on his career, Colucci said "it's been a lot of fun."
"If you do something you really love, it's not work," he said. "I really haven't worked because I like it so much."