Southside schools, politics in education on Hanna’s agenda
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
No matter how the question was asked during the recent campaign for Leon County superintendent of schools, Rocky Hanna was steadfast in his response to whether a new high school should be built on Tallahassee’s south side.
It’s not supported by the Florida Department of Education and he isn’t in favor either. Economically a new school isn’t the best way to spend money on education, he said.
However, Hanna insists that he’d like to build on the legacy of Rickards High School and Fairview elementary by doing state-of-the-art renovations at both south side schools.
Hanna, who was sworn in two weeks ago as the new superintendent of Leon County Schools, is vehement in his belief that renovation would enhance the learning environment at both schools.
“I’m fully committed to making our south side schools look like our north side schools,” Hanna said earlier this week. “Inside the classrooms, outside the classrooms and in the quality of instructions we provide for our kids.”
He said he will begin a case study within the coming weeks to evaluate the best and most economical way to make the change happen. He likened the situation to that of Lincoln High School before it was renovated over a four-year period, beginning in 2005 at the cost of $30 million.
In part, Hanna said a new school, which would cost an estimated $50 million could end up costing the district about $80 million because of what it the projected price of converting Rickard to a middle school and renovating Fairview for other uses.
He figures the less money could be spent to improve both schools. Fairview is in dire need of repairs, he said, his emotions ringing through in his voice.
“It breaks my heart to walk inside Fairview’s gym,” he said.
In addition, Hanna would like to see schools in the district return to being more diverse and he also wants teachers to have more autonomy in their classrooms. Reducing the number of political mandates that are changing education is also high on his list of priorities.
Those who know him say that Hanna, 52, will attack those issues with the same passion that he did as a teacher and principal during a career that started as a hall monitor 28 years ago.
“He is definitely one that will go against the flow if he feels in his heart that he is right, even though it might be very, very unpopular,” said Jean Ferguson, a former assistant principal who worked with Hanna at Leon High School. “He has an innate ability to understand what has to be done.”
School administrators and teachers should have more say in any change that affects what goes on in the classroom, Hanna said. That, he said, was the consensus at a recent meeting of state educators in Tampa.
“They (politicians) need to talk to the people who are in the trenches every day,” he said. “When I was principal at Leon (High School) I found myself time and time again going the Legislature trying to talk some sense into to them about performance pay for teachers, mandatory graduation requirements for all of our kids that include chemistry and algebra II. It’s like they expect every kid leaving high school to go to college and that’s just not the reality.”
Hanna also expressed concern about a mandate passed last year to allow school choice. He questioned the validity of the law, saying that it’s a step backward that would create segregation in schools. Hanna pointed to Griffin Middle School to illustrate his point, saying that instead of being almost 50/50 in its racial makeup it’s now predominantly Black, while there are other schools in the district with populations of mostly white students.
“That’s a concerning factor to me,” he said. “We have to have programs in place to keep diversity in our schools.”
During the campaign, Hanna seemingly managed to stay on message despite being involved in a highly contentious race against incumbent Jackie Pons.
“It was the longest 15 months of my life,” Hanna said. “I think there are two or three times in our lifetime when we have defining moments. This was certainly one of my defining moments. Am I proud of how ugly it was? No. But I try to try to take our first lady’s advice when they go low I try to stay high.”
He seemingly is taking the same approach in standing his ground on what he believes is best for students and teachers. There is a better-than-average chance that he will succeed, Ferguson said.
“He will fight it to the bitter end until there is no recourse,” she said. “He will find some other way to attack it. He just feels that public pre-K to 12 has gotten too far afield of what our mission is.”