Below is the full transcript of the nearly thirty-minute interview conducted with Principal Brenda Grasso on April 25th, her second-to-last full day as principal. Grasso reflects in the interview on her new position as an Area Leadership Director, as well as how she’s helped the school grow and how the school has helped her grow. The bold paragraph is a statement the Oracle believes to be of utmost importance to Grasso, the students, and the school.
ORACLE: When exactly did you find out about the position and its opportunity?
GRASSO: I first learned of the position back in early March that it would be open when Mr. Gaffney, who was at that time the area 3 ALD or area leadership director was promoted to assistant superintendent and the job became available online in late March. I was encouraged by some colleagues to apply and I thought, you know, I’ve been a high school principle for ten years and I believe I could make a difference at that level and so I filed my application.
ORACLE: So that was a fairly quick process?
GRASSO: It was. I filed my application and completed it the day before the deadline and then did not hear anything for quite some time, and was then called for an interview maybe two weeks ago, now. I went for that interview and was then called back for a second round of interviews and heard nothing until Monday evening the night before I would be appointed to stay.
ORACLE: What exactly can you tell us about what this position does?
GRASSO: It’s a position that assists principles and just the management of schools. For instance, there are 35 schools in this particular area that I’ll be working with, or 35 sites a month along with some charter schools and some very specialized type schools like Hospital Homebound that fall under the area 3 category. The major public schools are the feeder patterns for King High School, Gaither High School, Wharton, and Freedom. So it involves all of the elementary and middle schools that send students up to those high schools.
ORACLE: So you won’t be working directly with high schools?
GRASSO: With high schools but with the elementary and middle schools that send students to them as well, working more with the principles and assisting them with concerns that they have regarding management of the organization side of the school, but also with the area development as leaders.
ORACLE: Area 3 does not encompass Steinbrenner, does it?
GRASSO: No, it doesn’t. Steinbrenner is area 2. Mrs.Yost who was principle over at McKitrick will still remain area 2 ALD.
ORACLE: When you realized you were going to be appointed, when did it really sink in?
GRASSO: After the call on Monday, I really just sat here and sort of reflected on the change for a bit and started to internalize what that change would involve. I just recently sat on a panel at USF, at College of Education with a group of other women administrators in Hillsborough county and Hernando county, and one of the individuals there commented that the biggest transition she has made in her career was the one from a school to this position of ALD. She has currently moved on beyond that now, but I thought about her comment there on that panel of educators, and thought well now I’ll really understand what she means by that, it’s that loss of daily connection with students that she spoke about, and you know guys I’ve been at this for a very long time so I’ve had that connection day after day for years for most of my adult life and so that’ll be a big transition. I thought about that for a bit and then just started to think practically about what I need to do to prepare for that.
ORACLE: So would you say the hardest thing about leaving is that sort of “disconnect”?
GRASSO: Absolutely, without a doubt. I’ll still be working with adults. I’ll still be communicating daily with principles and their staff. I’ll still miss that distance from students.
ORACLE: What was it like starting a new school and how do you feel Steinbrenner has grown and how has it changed most in the past four years?
GRASSO: It definitely was a very big task of work. We literally created everything from the ground up. Ms. King, Mr. Henderson, Ms. Frank, who is our data processor, Ms. Thomas, my secretary, and our book keeper at that time, Ms. Hoffman were the first employees on site. This building, the admin building was the only building that was completed. The rest was a construction site. Watching them build buildings and put things into place physically at the same time that we were putting things into place as far as the philosophy of the school, the plans for the curriculum, the plans for routines and procedures was very exciting but long hours as well. As far as the progress that we’ve made, the thing I see in my mind that seems the most significant to me is the sense of community that has developed over the four years. You know, that first year, your class, which was the freshmen class really by and far it was the largest single class on campus so there was a sense of younger students which is not typical of a high school without a senior class to balance that, it made a big difference. The freshmen class coming in was pretty excited, I think, about entering high school and maybe were intrigued by the thought that it’s not where they thought they would be going. The older students on the other hand had already invested at least one year at another high school and were reluctant, at best, to make the transition. There were probably 100 or so, or 150 students who really wanted to be here initially. Then we opened to choice and gained about 400 students who choice assigned in and really wanted to be here. But all of that being said, we still had 1400 kids on campus, many of whom weren’t happy about it. So that first year, you guys might remember homecoming that year, how I asked everybody to bring a shirt and trade with me and we burned their old shirts. We worked very hard that year to make students proud of the school that they attended and to instill a sense of community. It was slow-going, slow-going that first year. Certainly now I feel that there is a real sense of pride among students and a sense of accomplishment on part of the staff.
ORACLE: Where do you think that the school should go from here?
GRASSO: really believe that Steinbrenner is going to continue to grow and thrive, I absolutely do. This is a great community with tremendous support for a high school and I just see it getting better and better as the years go by. The traditions and the procedures will just become more and more ingrained and provide more of a sense of stability and pride to students who are coming on board and staff members. We are reflected very positively in the surveys that are conducted across the district. We’re competitive. We’re very competitive academically and athletically. Newsome and Plant are big rivals, but it’s various schools at different times, but we are always up there in the top three to five, and that’s going to continue.
ORACLE: Specifically for Steinbrenner in the past 4 years, what have the students and the experience taught you or helped you grow with, that you didn’t already have from Gaither?
GRASSO: That’s a great question and it’s something that had you of asked me, what I anticipated the answer to be four or five years ago before we opened I would’ve had a very different answer for you. It’s very customary I think for people who are doing a job to believe that others doing the same job follow the same path, and that is not at all the case. So coming here and opening this school and bringing people here on board from all over the county I learned so much about the way different schools handle certain situations and how different schools manage students or work with parents or establish booster clubs. A wealth of knowledge because we have people from so many different schools, I learned years ago from one of my mentors that you really have to listen to different ideas and not always believe that you have a corner on the market; that there are some great ideas out there, and not to be afraid. I guess the thing I’m taking away from this I as go be a supervisor for 35 different sites, is to listen to what they are doing instead of always saying “no, you need to do it like this.”
ORACLE: Who would you see to be as your dearest new friends?
GRASSO: That’s so hard to answer. I feel like I’ve just found a new family here, so I can’t qualify it beyond that.
ORACLE: Do you have a favorite memory from these 4 years?
GRASSO: “I have a few memories that I will hold dear for a really long time. You guys might remember, I think it was during a pep assembly last year when the mike died and the student who was singing the national anthem was joined by the rest of the student body. It was actually the next morning that I actually went to the mike and made an announcement, and without any preparation, I hadn’t thought about it the night before, but I did driving into work, I thought about how we had achieved the sense of community that I have always wanted, finally happened in such an unusual fashion and when I wasn’t really looking for I didn’t plan it. Nothing was set up to prompt it. That definitely will long live as one of my treasured memories.
ORACLE: Okay, so on a different note, what kind of things will you focus on in your leadership position?
GRASSO: Well, I mentioned the importance of listening to others, being open minded, being a collaborative leader. You can force people to do something, but you don’t want to do that. You want them to feel like they’re part of the decision making process and part of the team. I think that the most important message across the board to any principal is that it is all about the students. They just have to have that at the center of any decision.
ORACLE: This might be a question you don’t have an answer to, but what can you tell us about the leadership transition here?
GRASSO: I don’t have an answer for that, but I will tell you what’s customary. I will sort of transition in pieces. Monday is my first day on the job, so I won’t be here all day Monday and Tuesday. I have a calendar full, and at various times over the coming weeks, I will be in and out of the building, working on finishing up tasks that are my responsibility to see through. During that time, there will be an advertised position, and the vacancy’s already posted. People will be sending resumes, and applying to Mrs. Yost. There will be interviews conducted, call back interviews, and then ultimately about a month or so from now, an appointment will be made. No one would wait until the start of next year, because there’s hiring to be done over summer and decisions to be made in purchases. Just as she has been in my absence from campus over the last four years, Mrs. King will be acting principal. It’s an understood thing that when the principal is away, even if it’s for a short period, the APC will take over.
ORACLE: What will you miss the most about Steinbrenner?
GRASSO: It’s what I know. For 16 years, I’ve been a high school administrator, and far longer than that, an educator on a school campus. All my life, I tell people I have a calendar that begins in August and ends early June and the rest is just preparation for that calendar, and I live my day in segments of 50 minutes. I don’t need a clock, a bell rings and I know what I need to do when the next bell has rung. I’m going to have to start wearing a watch, and think about a calendar that runs differently. I know that sounds like sort of a silly answer, but this will be a big change from that interaction on the campus with all that activity and all that student involvement to a position once removed from that.
ORACLE: Are you still planning on attending graduation?
GRASSO: Absolutely. I don’t know what role I might play, I may be a visitor, but I will be at graduation. I’ve already spoken with a couple of individuals who said they don’t see that that would be any problem whatsoever.
ORACLE: Will that make it a special graduation for you?
GRASSO: It already is a very special graduation for me and for our high school, because this is the first four year graduating class. This is solidifying the foundation of our student body, as far as I’m concerned, and while we’ve had some wonderful students graduate from Steinbrenner earlier, this has always been , as an entire class, this has always been Steinbrenner. And absolutely, knowing this is my last graduating class. You guys see this trophy on my desk, I selfishly said to coach Bosco, I’m going to keep this on my desk. It’s the last trophy I’ll ever really have any real ownership of as a principal, I’m going to hang onto it for today.
ORACLE: Anything else you have to add?
GRASSO: It’s been a wonderful experience for me to be able to open this school and be the principal for the last four years, and I’ll always treasure the memory of this. It’s a real accomplishment to know you can do something on this scale. I followed two strong principals when I was principal at the other school, and that was there. The infrastructure was there, and I just slipped into it. To be able to come here and start from scratch, and have this after four years. We assembled a tremendous staff that’s done a great job, and certainly a community of students that have been easy to work with.
Interview conducted by Jake Bittle and Brandon Mauriello / A&E Editor and News Editor
Interview transcribed by Hannah Crosby / Senior Staff Writer