We Have a Problem

Filthy bathrooms, dirty pictures, teachers fleeing in droves -- sounds like Apollo Middle School is adrift

Many of her employees would beg to differ. "Our school was like a family. Now it feels like a divorce," one teacher wrote in an e-mail. "Most of the teachers who left want to come back if they remove the principal."

Many teachers call Zekofsky's predecessor, Patricia Yaffa-Connor, who left to become a high-school principal, the best leader the school ever had. And even though losing Yaffa-Connor saddened many, the prospect of gaining Zekofsky softened the blow. Apollo Middle School would be her first job as a principal, but Zekofsky's reputation as an excellent assistant principal at Indian Ridge Middle School in Davie convinced Apollo's faculty that she would rise to the occasion. "Before [Zekofsky] came, we heard she was wonderful," one teacher remembers. "We were really excited to get her."

At least 48 Apollo employees have left since principal Aimee Zekofsky came to the school in 1998
At least 48 Apollo employees have left since principal Aimee Zekofsky came to the school in 1998
Dropout prevention teacher Suzanne Sosa figured prominently in a melodramatic mess that polarized Apollo's faculty
Dropout prevention teacher Suzanne Sosa figured prominently in a melodramatic mess that polarized Apollo's faculty

Zekofsky's résumé and evaluations also reflect promise. Born Aimee Rodriguez in 1955, she grew up in Puerto Rico. After earning her bachelor's and master's degrees, she began her career on the island, teaching elementary, middle, and high school from 1976 to 1984. She spent a year at an elementary school in New Jersey, and then in 1985 she started as a "bilingual teacher" at Sunrise Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. In 1993 she began taking classes at Nova Southeastern University toward a doctorate in educational leadership. She served as an assistant principal at New River Middle School from 1993 to 1995 and then at Indian Ridge from 1995 to 1998. During her tenure at Indian Ridge she married and changed her last name.

Her evaluations sing her praises as an assistant principal. Many current and former Apollo teachers and parents, however, think her superiors greatly overestimated her ability to lead others. "I believe it when people say Aimee was a good assistant principal," one former Apollo teacher says. "I believe you can be a good assistant principal and not be a good principal."

Once they saw Zekofsky at work, many teachers gathered that the new boss had the wrong idea about their school. "I got the feeling that Aimee came in, and Aimee thought Apollo was a bad school. She was under the perception she was supposed to clean it up," one former Apollo teacher says, adding that the school in no way needed a structural overhaul. "Apollo was a school that could kind of run on autopilot. It didn't need a principal there to run. There were veteran teachers there, and there was a rhythm to the school. It's all lost now."

A principal new to a school often refrains from making sweeping changes right away, instead spending the first year observing the faculty dynamic and building relationships with employees. But as soon as Zekofsky arrived at Apollo, she began tweaking the routine: She reassigned teachers' classrooms, reworked the schedule, and rewrote the budget, teachers remember. She also made smaller changes that, more than anything else, rubbed teachers the wrong way.

Her preoccupation with gum-chewing perplexed many teachers. "With all the fighting [among students], her main concern is chewing gum," one teacher sighs. "That may have been the biggest problem at Indian Ridge but not at Apollo."

As Zekofsky spent most of her energy fixing what wasn't broken, teachers say, the school's day-to-day operations began to deteriorate. Several teachers tell stories of handouts going home to parents weeks late, last-minute faculty meetings, and haphazard planning for school events. Teachers say Zekofsky also did not consistently hold employees accountable for their work -- that, they say, is why the school steadily grew filthy.

Teachers' distrust of Zekofsky grew, especially in light of the adversarial posture she assumed toward her most experienced staffers. "She went after the veteran teachers," one teacher declares. "She said she wanted to get rid of the cliques. What's a clique? A group of people that get along with each other."

Zekofsky only validated that suspicion when she fired Lorenzo Alvarez, a man who worked as the school's security guard and who helped coach athletic teams. According to teachers and a signed statement that Alvarez wrote to document the occurrence, Zekofsky accused Alvarez of cursing at an athletic event she did not attend. "Aimee Zekofsky proceeded to write me up and did not listen to a word I said in my own defense," Alvarez wrote. "I have always been very professional with staff and students at extracurricular events." Zekofsky's decision to cut an employee who, teachers say, had a gift for controlling unruly children upset many faculty and staff members.

But despite the brewing trouble of the first year, many teachers stayed on because they knew it was only Zekofsky's first stab at leading a school. School Board member Lois Wexler says she thinks teachers mainly had a "wait and see" attitude. "Her leadership style didn't seem to blend with the structure of the school, and that happens sometimes," Wexler allows.

Samuel Gregg, the south area superintendent, also says initial problems are normal when a new principal comes to a school. "There's always resentment from teachers when someone new takes the helm," he says. "She has a very different leadership style. A lot of teachers at Apollo have been there 15 or 20 years. It takes some time for teachers and staff to get used to Ms. Zekofsky."

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