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Estero Principal George Clover, right, and athletic director and cross country coach Jeff Sommer go over the schedule, which was approved that morning. / Mei-Mei Chan/news-press.com

Principal for a day

Lee County
Lee business community leaders interested in being principal for a day can call Marshall Bower, President & CEO of The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools, at 239-337-0433, or email him at Marshall@leeschoolfoundation.org.
Collier County
Collier residents interested can call David Stump, School Operations Office, at 239-377-0203.

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It’s 6:45 a.m., and the courtyard at Estero High School is buzzing with energy and hormones.

Twenty school buses have disgorged their sleepy loads and nearly 1,600 teens are girding for another day of education starting at 7:05.

Principal George Clover is hovering over a new teacher. She is visibly distressed, red-eyed. “You can’t take it home. You have to leave it here,” he’s saying.

“It makes me angry,” she says, brushing away a tear. I’ve come in the middle of the conversation and I await the reason.

“I want them to succeed. But they’re choosing not to.”

Clover responds: “You can’t change the world, just a little piece of it.”

It was the start of a typical day for Clover, and a fascinating experience for me shadowing him as “Principal for a Day” recently, one of 28 who took part in The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools’ program.

During our nonstop, nearly nine hours together, Clover handled two disciplinary issues; a harassment incident and a re-entry (more on that later). He stopped into nearly 10 classes; busted two kids for chewing tobacco; gnawed on chicken nuggets; reviewed next year’s curriculum; checked into the just-agreed-upon important football calendar; and ran a staff meeting and emergency procedure drill.

At 10:15, Clover said, “Our day is half done.” That’s when lunch started, the first of three shifts.

Classes finished at 1:35 p.m. After I left at 3:15, Clover stayed to do emails, then cheered on the boys’ soccer team that evening. (The Wildcats won, but later lost to Immokalee in the regional semifinals).

Since The News-Press has brought a renewed focus on education in the region with our coverage and Education Summits, this immersion with the outspoken Clover was enlightening.

Estero is the farthest south of Lee County’s 13 district-run public high schools, handling 7.6 percent of its 21,000 teens. It draws from the two southern zones as part of school choice, a smaller pool than peers. The farthest bus commute is 70 minutes one-way.

Think of Estero High as an 1,800-person city, a throbbing, well-used factory that’s producing our future.

(Page 2 of 3)

As we go from class to class, Clover fumbles with keys at each locked door — it’s a procedural change due to the Sandy Hook tragedy. While he nudges some snoozers, most students are engaged, at computers, around projects, solving equations, interacting with teachers who are earnestly giving of themselves. There are smart boards and hand-held Texas Instruments, tired desks and chair legs cushioned with tennis balls to avoid further scuffling.

We check out the just rebuilt wood shop and where the new JROTC rappel course will be out back. Clover touts the thriving Cambridge program for gifted students — one way of competing with the magnet schools — as well as the medical program, which includes a partnership with Lee Memorial Health System and provides certification for entry-level health care work. “I didn’t realize how many options I have,” says senior Rainy Primmer, who plans to go on to Edison State College.

It’s a difficult balance, to meet the needs of each student. One size definitely does not fit all. And yet customization to meet individual needs is costly, inefficient.

Estero High is 45 percent minority, nearly all Hispanic, with 54 percent on free or reduced lunches, about 12 percent lower than the district average.

About 30 of 370 seniors are at risk of not graduating. Clover and his team are intent on getting those with 1.7 grade-point averages up to 2.0 so they can graduate. That involves extra classes, coaching and badgering.

His disciplinary visitors today are seniors who had tangled in class; both are well-familiar with the principal’s office. “What do you want to do with yourself?” Clover asks the first as he looks up his records online.

“I don’t know. College I guess,” the youth mumbles.

“Can you get in with these records?” Clover asks.

“No.”

“Are any of your actions acceptable?” Again, “no.”

Clover, who is fondly acknowledged by his team as a micromanager, barks into his walkie-talkie for Assistant Principal Kathleen Jasper. She arrives and confirms the student is out of options. Clover reluctantly plans a hearing to assign the youth to the Alternative Learning Center, essentially a “timeout” facility. (Instead, the child’s parents sent him away to a church-sponsored program.)

(Page 3 of 3)

The second student is wearing a JROTC uniform, though not crisply. Clover scolds him for reacting to the other student, then looks up his grades — they’re slipping. The student says he’s doing fine while Clover expresses his skepticism. “Prove me wrong,” he says as he dismisses him. Then to Jasper: Check in with his grades in two weeks. (Later, he, too, is sent to the Alternative Learning Center for repeat offenses.)

Clover estimates he spends 30 to 40 percent of his time on disciplinary issues. Another 30 percent is spent on athletics.

“It’s the tail that wags the dog. … It’s what people see in the paper,” he says, meaning sports are another distinction when kids are choosing schools.

During his nine years here, Clover has made progress in many ways. Estero High is the first in Lee County to win three straight state girls cross country titles. And the Wildcats just had one of their best football years with an 8-3 record.

When Clover first arrived, Estero had a reputation as a “gangbanger” school, a pink prison with him as warden. He sought out the leaders and set boundaries — don’t tag my school, don’t hassle kids, don’t wear symbols as a group, and don’t fight within two miles.

Today, there are few fights; Estero has the second fewest students at the Alternative Learning Center among its peers.

Still, whatever they’re doing, Clover and his administrators dash out when the bell rings. It’s the in-between class time that is perilous. So sentinels are stationed prominently, especially during the three lunch periods (they serve some 1,100 meals a day).

His biggest challenge? Getting qualified teachers, especially in math and science. As principals, “we’ll stab each other in the back in a heartbeat to get a good teacher.”

Estero has 78 teachers, including seven Estero graduates, paid an average of $62,000, set by contracts. Starting April 1, many will be occupied by or disrupted by testing for weeks. “Raising the bar is good but it's not for everyone,” Clover says. “We’re setting some kids up for failure.”

Estero became an A school officially last year, based on a wide variety of state requirements including progress among the lowest 25 percentile. “They change the rules every year,” Clover says. While grades are viewed by the public as a true report card, “in reality it means very little.”

There’s a lot out of his control, especially funding flexibility and resources. So Clover stays focused on his products, even as he contemplates retirement soon.

An 18-year-old comes in with her tiny grandmother, who is cradling the teen’s baby. The girl had dropped out in October, and wants to return to graduate, then go to college. She needs only three credits and her records are good. Clover calls for his team. They puzzle out a schedule for her to begin the following day.

“You’ve got to be here in school,” he orders her. “Who’s going to take care of your baby?” “My grandmother,” she responds.

“All right. You can do it. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mei-Mei Chan is president and publisher of The News-Press Media Group. Her column runs the last Sunday of each month. Contact her at publisher@news-press.com

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