Zephyrhills principal brings rules and open communication
By Kyle LoJacono
Steve Van Gorden became Zephyrhills High’s principal May 5, 2009 and he wasted little time instituting his style of education during his first full year at the school.
“The biggest challenge is people get accustomed to doing things a certain way and then a new person comes in and makes a bunch of changes,” Van Gorden, 34, said. “We had some transition issues, but after getting through most of those I think I feel very close to all the students now.”
Most of those changes were to tighten safety around the school, such as keeping students from leaving campus for lunch. While these changes may have seemed unneeded to students, Van Gorden believes they are necessary ensure the students’ protection.
“Overall I think the changes he’s made are positive,” said senior class president Elizabeth Patrias. “A lot of people have been resistant to the rules and said they were strict, but that’s because they are new.”
Patrias has been class president all four of her years at Zephyrhills and worked with Van Gorden’s predecessor Gerri Painter. She said the main difference between the two was things were more relaxed with Painter, but feels the school is safer now, as did junior class president Tiffany Trebour.
“I think things have been pretty good this year,” Trebour said of Van Gorden’s methods. “He wasn’t scared to change things that he thought needed to be changed.”
Van Gorden’s goals may not be apparent to all the students yet, but they are clear to the administration.
“I think he’s done a great job,” said Zephyrhills assistant principal Tim Urban. “He’s gotten involved in the community and brought a lot of good ideas….When issues came up he addresses them without hesitation. That’s not to say that Gerri Painter hesitated on things, but Mr. Van Gorden deals with issues quickly.”
Urban has been with the school for four years and likes how Van Gorden always asks the opinions of administrators.
“We have weekly meetings to go over everything in the school to see what we can do better,” Urban said. “He has an open mind and I’m excited about working with him next year.”
One way Van Gorden included the community was in selecting Reggie Roberts as the new football coach. He was forced to terminate Jerrell Cogman from the position before the season amid alleged recruiting violations, which was another test of Van Gorden’s leadership. He then created a search committee, which included community members that led him to picking Roberts for the job.
To help ensure students stayed on campus at the school, Van Gorden had each child assigned to a parking spot to easily see if a student was gone.
“That was something I never had to deal with in my last job,” Van Gorden said, who was the principal of Hudson Middle. “You don’t have to think about middle school kids driving off campus for lunch.
“While I put in these new policies, I made sure people knew I would listen to them,” Van Gorden added. “I want there to be open communication and for the students to be comfortable with me.”
Van Gorden was born in Arkansas and grew up in Spring Hill. He started as a teacher at Pasco High and Pasco Middle before becoming an assistant principal, which was a split position between Wesley Chapel High and Land O’ Lakes High. He became the principal at Hudson Middle at age 28, but wanted to come to Zephyrhills because it is closer to his Dade City home.
The Bulldogs principal also has political experience. Van Gorden was elected a commissioner of Dade City in 2004 and served for more than five years.
Next year, the principal wants to continue to tighten school safety while increasing its academic standards. That includes offering more advanced placement and duel enrollment classes.
Van Gorden has been focusing on the big issues at Zephyrhills, but one seemingly small decision turned into one of the biggest for the seniors.
There is a place called the senior stage in the commons area at the school where seniors spend time. Van Gorden moved two couches from the stage to different places within the facility so the school did not have to buy new ones. The seniors were upset because they had waited three years to use the couches.
After hearing the senior’s complaints, he moved one of the couches back and added benches. Van Gorden said he believes that problem brought him closer to the senior class because he listened to them and they worked through it.
“I couldn’t do everything I wanted with (Patrias) and her class because I was trying to learn my job, but I’m working with next year’s senior president so we don’t have a couch issue or other problems,” Van Gorden said. “It took me a year to learn. This was my learning year.”