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After 37 years, a caravan of love for Pinellas principal Darren Hammond

“Students ask to see him all the time. At what other school does that happen?”

ST. PETERSBURG — Principal Darren Hammond was sitting at his computer at home Thursday, waiting for others to join a virtual staff meeting. It was almost time to start and no one else had logged on.

Then he heard someone yelling through a megaphone on his front patio: “Come out of the house," said Greg Perkins, the wood shop teacher at Pinellas Secondary School.

In a bright yellow shirt, Hammond peeked out the front door, and a smile spread across his face. “I thought we were supposed to be having a meeting,” he said.

“This is the meeting,” Perkins replied cheekily. Then a line of cars started pouring onto the street, horns blaring, balloons and hands waving out of sunroofs and rolled-down windows. Hammond wiped tears from his cheeks.

Related: Life, interrupted: The toll on five local students, from kindergarten through college

He retires this summer after 37 years working in Pinellas County public schools. There was supposed to be a party, but the coronavirus pandemic put that on hold. So about 50 friends, family members, teachers and other school staff organized the surprise caravan through his neighborhood.

“We love you!" someone yelled from one car. “No more school, baby!” said another.

Teresa Anderson, retired principal for Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, points to Darren Hammond during a surprise caravan in his honor Thursday. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

After a couple laps around the block, cars parked and people ran into Hammond’s yard with presents, cupcakes and balloons. One woman placed a colorful flower lei around his neck. A few others danced with him in the street as neighbors walked outside to see what was happening.

Hammond started as a teacher in 1983, then later briefly worked as a guidance counselor before becoming an administrator in 2000. He has worked in seven schools in the district, spending the past decade at Pinellas Secondary, a school in Pinellas Park that focuses on students with behavior issues.

Educators from his campus say Hammond brings a special tone to his work as principal. He listens to teachers, is firm but fair with students and invests in people like they’re family.

Hammond said his philosophy has always been to “pitch right in” when there’s work to be done. He’s taught class more than once when a teacher called out and a substitute wasn’t available.

His priority has always been students in need of an advocate, he said. “Some of them don’t have that parental support, so I was their parent at school.”

Hammond values relationships above all else, said school social worker Melissa Newman. He’s constantly working to build bridges between students and educators, and he values mental health, too.

Even kids with the worst behavior problems trust his tough love style, Newman said. He treats them with dignity and respect, telling them his door is always open if they need to talk. But his expectations stay high.

“Students ask to see him all the time,” Newman said. “At what other school does that happen?”

Hammond has implemented behavior policies math teacher Jessica Butler credits with lifting struggling students to help them succeed. “He knows when to be tough and when to give love,” she said. “It’s always a combination of both.”

He always supports teachers, too, Butler added. He holds monthly meetings where staff can give feedback and openly voice concerns, and he has no problem taking those to district leaders when necessary.

She said Hammond’s retirement is bittersweet. Many are celebrating with him but also mourning the loss of a leader seen as irreplaceable.

Perkins, the wood shop teacher, said principals like Hammond are rare. Even though so much of education today is based on standards and testing, he’s good about letting teachers have autonomy over their lessons.

“He allows us to be individuals,” Perkins said. “There’s no dog-and-pony show with him."

A sign taped to one well-wisher's car Thursday describes the qualities Darren Hammond has shown as principal at Pinellas Secondary School. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Hammond’s mother, Jean Hammond, was in the caravan, waving proudly from the driver’s seat. She spent 21 years in the school district as a secretary in the district office.

Years ago she told her son not to go into education — she knew it was a taxing job, especially as rules and regulations on instruction grew. But he did it anyway.

“He said, ‘Somebody has to do it,’" Jean Hammond remembered. And he did.

Hammond plans to travel in retirement, to Hawaii and Amsterdam and a couple states he hasn’t been to yet. But he knows he will have to be patient because of the pandemic. His last official day is June 30.

In the meantime, he’s soaking up the last few weeks of being a principal from home, missing seeing students and walking the halls of his campus.

“I have really loved teaching and being in education,” Hammond said from his front yard. “It was my calling."