When he got up Friday, Dec. 20, Ron Pritchard put on the familiar orange and blue and headed to school for the last time as principal of Bartow High School, bringing to a close 23 years of leadership at one of the city’s oldest institutions.
“I wish I didn’t have to retire,” the 62-year-old school administrator said, but under the current state-deferred retirement program, his days at the school were numbered. “I really hate to leave.”
Pritchard isn’t just leaving BHS, he’s also leaving his alma mater. He was a member of the class of 1970, and returned nearly 20 years later after spending time in various Polk County schools as a social studies teacher, a dean and counselor. In the process, he completed his own education at Southeastern University and Rollins College, where he obtained his undergraduate and master’s degrees.
Now, he has said good-bye to BHS’s 2,200 students in the main high school, the International Baccalaureate school, Summerlin Academy and a dozen or more individual academies. He has seen dramatic changes at BHS during his tenure as its chief. The biggest change besides the career academies has been the continued emphasis on testing, both for students and teachers.
“Testing is important, but kids should also think that school is fun” he said. “I’ve tried over the years to see that there was always some fun for the kids.
“There’s nothing wrong with testing,” he added. “We need to know how our kids are doing and how our teachers are doing, but there is so much testing now and the stakes are so high. I just hope we haven’t gone wrong by emphasizing it so much.”
He said that some students choke at testing time and just aren’t good test takers. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t learned and aren’t going to continue to learn.
“The same is true for our teachers,” said Pritchard. “They are great. They just need to be allowed to teach and to make learning fun.”
Bartow High School has managed to gather continuous B ratings in all three major sub-schools.
“I am proud that we’ve been a leader in establishing the academies,” he said. He added that the mini-schools with specialized course studies have helped keep students focused. In addition, students liked the hands-on experiences, which spilled over into their academic studies.
“Kids want variety,” he said. “They enjoy being active and like the hands-on approach the academies give them.”
Pritchard says his legacy at the school is leaving it in the hands of able successors.
“We’re lucky that we have three other principals who love kids and that will keep BHS successful.”
IB principal Ed Vetter who has worked closely with Pritchard since the IB school was created within BHS. “(Pritchard) is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” said Vetter. “He has always put the students first, over all else.”
He said Pritchard’s legacy was the IB program as well as the Summerlin Academy.
“He had the vision to bring this all about and make it a success, he said. “It’s been an honor to work with him.”
Steve Cochran, the commandant at Summerlin Academy, echoed
“(Pritchard has) “always been a person you could speak openly and honestly with and share your feelings. He’s always heard me out fairly and set an example for me,” said Cochan. “He has allowed me to grow and supported me, but his focus has always been on the needs of the school and the students.”
Cochran said Pritchard would not really be gone.
“He’ll be around in some way, whether it’s as a substitute teacher or as a volunteer, he’ll be around,” he said. “And if I need to talk to him, I know he’ll always be there for me.”
Taking over from Pritchard will be his hand-chosen successor, Emilean Clemons, who worked for him 11 years, starting in 2003 when he hired her as his assistant principal of curriculum.
“He has always supported and mentored me. He enabled me to get leadership opportunities and grounded me with his support,” she said.
She added that Pritchard’s priority had always been the students. Every decision he made was for them. She said he has served in almost every capacity, from the classroom to the principal’s office. Also that he knows the history of the school, the students and most of the teachers. He’s an invaluable resource to me and that’s how I see him. But, on top of that, we’re friends.
“He gave me so many opportunities,” she said, “and always had confidence in my abilities, even without administrative experience.” Clemons was appointed as co-principal last summer when it was evident this would be Pritchard’s last year and takes over officially as the sole principal at the school on Jan. 6 when students return to classes.
When asked what he plans to do when he no longer has a school to run, Pritchard smiles and points to a photo of a little boy and girl.
“I plan to spend as much time as I can with my grandchildren,” he said. He adds that his wife, Holly, the dean of students at Lake Region High School, also plans to retire at the end of the year. “Then we can finally spend a lot of time together,” he said.
“Bartow doesn’t really know how great this school is. I hope I left it better than it ever was.”