New Armwood principal offers reassurances about school leadership

Armwood's third principal in a year reassures them and keeps it positive.
Published October 25 2013
Updated October 25 2013

SEFFNER — The principal at Armwood High School seems to change like the seasons.

In the past year, three different people have walked the school's halls as the top Hawk.

Some parents worry the principal turnover is creating a leadership void at the school and that could impact student morale and academics. Joseph Castelli, the third principal to assume the helm, insists that's not the case.

"I'm not here to make a lot of changes because we've already been through that," said Castelli, who came to Armwood from Bloomingdale High as an assistant principal along with then-principal Mark West. "We want to keep those things we've already changed. The teachers have bought into what we're doing; the entire administration has bought into what we're doing.

"They're supporting all the great things we've done and we're going to continue to create even more positive change. I live in the Seffner community and I have a lot of teachers who live in the Seffner community. Our goal is to make sure Armwood is a fixture in the community."

Still, some parents worry about the seeming instability and wonder if the changes reflect a lack of attention by the Hillsborough County School District.

"We are concerned because it does affect our kids," said Shan Bennifield, a mother of a sophomore at the school. "We do need stability. Having three principals in a year isn't giving the kids stability."

Larry Sykes, director of the district's Area 7 schools, which includes Armwood, said the turnover is unfortunate and was not orchestrated. He also said students and the Armwood community aren't being neglected. Changes, he said, occur.

"Sometimes, you don't always see what's going to happen," he said.

• • •

A lot has happened at Armwood in the past two years. A player eligibility scandal cost the football team its 2011 state football title. Several months later, principal Michael Ippolito was gone as were three other top administrators. Ippolito returned to Tampa Bay Tech High School to fill its open principal slot.

In January, the school district sent West and Castelli from high-achieving Bloomingdale to lead Armwood. West took the principal's job and Castelli assumed a vice principal's slot. Joining them were two assistant principals from other local high schools.

At the time, school district officials did not link the administration changes to the football player eligibility scandal or the school's history of an average performance on the FCAT. They said principals, assistant principals and teachers switch schools all the time.

Now, West is gone. He left Armwood this month, promoted to general manager of employee relations. Castelli took over as principal. He introduced himself to families via a phone call a few weeks ago.

Sykes said West is taking over a job held by Charles "Buddy" Raburn, who is retiring. School superintendent MaryEllen Elia believed West was the best candidate for the job, he added.

"I hated to lose him," Sykes said. "He's done an excellent job at Armwood."

Rather than go outside again for a new principal, the school board promoted from within. Castelli is a good fit, Sykes said, adding he has been West's right-hand man for years.

"They deserve to have someone who was there beforehand," Sykes said. "He's learned from Mark. He knows that style. He's going to build on that and move forward."

• • •

Bennifield spends a lot of time at Armwood. She loves the school, supporting her football-playing son and his teammates by making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and supplying other treats.

She also donates time as a sports booster club member helping other teams at Armwood. She is saddened by the frequent turnover at principal and tired of the conversations that revolve around the principal instead of education or the play of the successful football team.

Armwood, Bennifield said, is a great school and one that has put Hillsborough County on the map because of its football program. She'd just like a good leader to stay put and support the kids and the community.

"We are well-known throughout Florida," she said. "They know who we are on the football structure. With that being said, we should get, I don't mean special treatment, but we shouldn't have to go through the adversity that we're going through on the academic structure."

Bennifield said Armwood sits in a working-class community and doubts that this type of principal turnover could happen at Armwood's rival, Plant High School, a school primarily filled with affluent kids from South Tampa.

"At Armwood, we commonly say, this is Armwood!" she said. "It's sad that the School Board does not have the same sentiment. It's sad we can't get the academic support."

• • •

Debora Gatzke had no plans to send her daughter to Armwood, her zoned school. She had heard too many rumors it was a bad school. She was considering Brandon High School, even though it is farther away.

Then, she got phone calls from some Armwood officials. One of the callers was West. He hyped up the school and said her daughter, Elizabeth, a soon-to-be ninth-grader and strong student, was a perfect candidate for Armwood's Collegiate Academy.

They won Gatzke over. Elizabeth became an Armwood Hawk in August and a member of the school's new Collegiate Academy, which will allow her to earn a high school diploma and associate's degree by the time she graduates in four years.

Gatzke was stunned to hear West left. She thought he had made great strides at the school.

"It was a surprise," she said. "We didn't see it coming."

Maybe, Gatzke said, West's role was simply to get Armwood back on track and then move on.

In addition to the residency scandal that cost the football team its state title, Armwood often scores a "C" grade on the state's standardized FCAT test, ranks at the lower end for graduation rates and had the second-highest number of expulsion hearings (17) for district high schools during the 2011-2012 school year.

"I think he's the bulldog," Gatzke said. "They found him to change curriculum and fix things."

She added: "That school is making changes for the good."

Gatzke views Castelli as a good leader and hopes he stays. Still, she said she plans to keep a close eye on the administration comings and goings at Armwood.

"If they change principals again, then I'll definitely go to the School Board and find out what's going on. Then, it's affecting the children. They'll see a weakness at the school."

• • •

Castelli, who displayed his school spirit last week by dressing in costumes for homecoming week, offered assurances that Armwood is on the right track and he plans on maintaining the progress.

He points to new improvements at the school: an outdoor patio where kids can take advantage of cooler temperatures and eat outside; a tardy rate that has declined by 50 percent year to year and a courtyard that will be designated for AVID, Collegiate Academy and other high-achieving students.

From his perspective, the Collegiate Academy will play a key role. Nearly 100 kids enrolled in the program this year and he expects that number to grow to more than 300 over the next couple of years.

"The great thing about the program is that a lot of the students were already zoned for Armwood, were already Armwood kids," Castelli said. "That's showing us that we have great kids already coming into our school.

"And because it's a magnet program, we've attracted other kids. We've got students from down in Riverview, the Plant City area, Tampa, Brandon, Valrico and they're excited about what we're doing. They walked the school last year, last summer, met the teachers, got excited and they're running with it."

Sykes said he understands parents' concerns, agreeing they deserve a permanent leader. He wants them to know their concerns have been heard. Castelli, he said, isn't going anywhere.

"He will be there for a while," Sykes promised.

Monica Bennett can be reached at