Pepin Academies faced a major loss when former executive director Craig Butz died in a September 2017 boat crash in Clearwater.
Since the loss, the school continued its mission in providing a high-caliber education for students with disabilities, and bid adieu to a successful Class of 2018 with former chair Jeff Skowronek making key decisions.
In July, Pepin Academies named Skowronek the new executive director for the Riverview and Tampa campuses. A former University of Tampa associate professor of psychology and director of undergraduate research and inquiry, Skowronek worked at the university level for 13 years where he specialized in learning and memory in children which ties to in some forms kids with learning differences.
Skowronek's eight-year history with Pepin Academies began with a colleague from The University of Tampa who introduced him to the school and its mission.
"She served on the board of directors and couldn't devote the time to it," Skowronek said. "We shared a lot of similar interests in our research and interests with kids with learning differences. I told her I'd check it out and she knew something I didn't because here I am about eight years later as executive director."
In addition to serving as board chair, Skowronek pioneered the research project that led to Pepin's modified academic calendar, shortening summer breaks without increasing the number of days in school to sustain higher achievement. Skowronek recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Katelyn Massarelli about taking on the executive director role and filling the large void created by the death of the popular Butz.
You've stuck with the school for about eight years now, what drew you to the school?
I've always had this interest in, more than anything, identifying strengths in kids with learning differences and helping them reach their real potential. That's what drew me in many ways to the school. We far too often focus on the weaknesses of kids with learning differences whatever the diagnosis may be. I don't focus on the diagnosis too much because it's about the learning outcome that comes of it. Every kid with a learning disorder can benefit from this school.
That's what this school does, it helps everyone reach those maximum potentials that they have. Sitting on the board side for all those years and seeing the commitment of the teachers and overall investment and belief in what they do, made it hard for me to pull away. It sucks you in. Once you look at the basic premise, it's hard not to see a place like Pepin Academies as a cornerstone for helping reach that.
Why is accepting this new role so important you?
I think it gives me a new opportunity different from the university to impart that change. At the university, I was teaching about childhood disorders. I was overseeing undergraduate research and students would get to take the perspective I have – hopefully learn that knowledge base while in the courses – and let that help them make the connections and the internships.
Here, maybe teaching the theories and the concepts is gone but using what I know to implement the best and the most successful strategies for the school now becomes the highlight.
It was always cool to see students walking across the stage at graduation, and now I'll be on that other side of knowing that the decisions I made with the team of people here actually helps ensure success.
Why, in your opinion, is Pepin Academies a better school for students with learning differences?
I wouldn't call this a better way, it's simply different. Coming from the college sector, I think you can have two equally great professors and you drop one course and take the other because that professor just reaches you differently. I don't think we are necessarily better than so-called traditional schools, I just think there is a different form and function to what we do.
You're still very new to the role, what are some of the goals you are wanting to get done maybe this year or within the current school year?
After our previous executive director passed away, my hope is that I can get us back on a track to where we can see how the school is improving each year. We kind of stabilized for a little bit when Craig passed away. I hope that I can re-elevate and reengage. I would like to see our school become a sustainable product of enrollment and really just get the word out about who we are.
Does it weigh heavily on you to be taking on this role after Craig Butz passing?
No, it doesn't, only because I'm fairly confident that he is somewhere happy that it's me. We worked very well together we understood and believed in the same direction for the schools. I'm not coming in trying to replace him. I'm not trying to fill his shoes. I think that would be a naïve approach to anybody's passing. I'm not here to make sure his legacy lives on, but I am here to make sure the things that we started get finished.
I'm taking the ideas that I have, which are what I believe is the best for the school and I'm implementing them at the same time. As long as I never let myself think or feel that I have to do something that he wanted to do or quote unquote "fill his shoes" then it can't weigh that heavily on me.
I'll always respect his visions and his ideas but then continue on with my own. I think, knowing him as well as I did, my ideas are things he'd be alright with too. In the end, I don't look at myself as replacing Craig, I look at myself as simply replacing the executive director. It just so happens that he was a very close friend of mine and he passed away tragically, but I have to compartmentalize those things. I think about him every day, his picture is on my wall and his helmet from the Riverview campus we built together is in my office.
Going back to you wanting Pepin Academies to be more well known within the community, how should it recognize Pepin Academies?
Students with learning differences don't need to feel alone or isolated. They can achieve pretty much anything. They don't need to be lost in a school system that doesn't meet their needs. We're just introducing a different approach to that learning environment, so those needs can get met. I would love for the overall communities to see and know that a school like Pepin Academies isn't a school to say we're better or worse. If you feel like the option that are presented to you are leaving your child with less than desirable outcomes because of a learning difference, we've got you.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Katelyn Massarelli at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3436. Follow @katelyn_jou