You boast an impressive 30- year career in public education with an extensive background in both instructional and operational leadership having started as a classroom teacher, then moving on to reading coach, administrator, assistant principal, principal, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction before being elected Superintendent in 2016. Of all the positions you have held in public education which has been the most rewarding and why?
Until a couple of years ago, I would have always believed that the most rewarding position that I have held in my 30+ year career in public education would have been being a teacher or principal at the elementary school in which I had my first teaching position and where my children had attended school. This tight-knit school environment was a lighthouse for families in our community and a joy to serve. Seeing students and teachers experience success and accomplish goals at the school level was very fulfilling. Also, seeing how quickly positive change can happen on a campus where trust is high and everyone is working toward the same goal is equally as inspiring. Often, when I wrestle with this question of my most rewarding position, I find myself looking backward. However, despite the immense challenges over the past couple of years including school safety, COVID, hurricanes, an expanded voucher system, a tremendous teacher shortage, social media, and political unrest, I have to believe my most rewarding position is the position I am currently holding.
With the constant turmoil across our nation, I believe that God has called each one of us to lead courageously in such a time as this. I find comfort in Nelson Mandela's quote, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear". The opportunities to lead my school district for good, for God, and growth are abundant. I do not believe there has ever been a time in my career when a culture of genuine care is needed more. Serving as a school superintendent provides rewarding opportunities every day to invest in people through creating a culture in which each individual is empowered to use their talents and gifts to fulfill their very best. This type of investment has the potential of transforming a school district environment into a place of vitality, growth, and purpose. I truly believe that amazing ripple effects come from a purpose-driven environment, focused on individuals, creating a culture that centers on serving others. I certainly do not get this right every single day, but I desire to work toward that goal of building and establishing a place of learning in which everyone, students and staff, are empowered to use their talents to live and work to their greatest potential. Great fulfillment comes from this work!
In collaboration with community business leaders, you have put in place the CEO (Career Exploration and Opportunities) Program at Avon Middle School which has won the State of Florida Commissioner’s Award for Best Family and Student Involvement Program. How do you see this program benefiting your students and the wider community?
Avon Park Middle School's Career Exploration and Opportunities (CEO) Program provides 8th-grade students an opportunity to learn soft skills and other job-related life skills in the classroom, but even more important to then be able to apply those skills to employment in the real world. Not only do these students complete coursework as part of this program and have multiple guest speakers come in to share their experiences, but they also participate in a 20-hour job shadowing experience during the school year for which they are compensated. This allows these middle school students the ability to explore various career fields before they even enter high school and to carry this knowledge and experience with them as they continue moving forward on their educational journey.
The CEO program aligns directly with the school's mission statement which is "to prepare students to be college and career ready by involving them in rigorous curriculum, attainable goals and positive relationship-building." Students apply and interview with business partners for the job-shadowing positions and then complete this work outside of school hours. The experiences that students gain as part of this program allow them opportunities to explore college and/or career paths to better equip each for their future. This program has also enhanced strong positive relationships between Avon Park Middle School and many community partners throughout Highlands County. The exciting process of the student interview day resulting in a student placement in a local business has been infectious and something more and more of our businesses want to join. Students have prepared well for this experience, and I often hear from business leaders that the enthusiasm of these students gives them great hope for our future. We look forward to expanding this program to all of our middle schools within the next couple of years.
What is an innovative/impactful initiative in your school district that you are most proud of during your tenure as a superintendent?
One exciting initiative that has provided our students with tremendous options and opportunities is our Highlands Engineering and Aviation Technology Academy (HEAT). At our local airport, students participate in an Aeronautical Engineering program in partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. They receive instruction in Aviation and Aerospace curriculum along with building actual aircraft. There are two different programs housed at the airport, (1) aviation and aerospace studies and aircraft building and (2) Aeronautical Engineering using the state-of-the-art Fusion 360 CAD program in partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Student internships are also available with businesses at the Sebring Regional Airport. We are in the process of developing additional internships/co-op/job shadowing experiences with additional partners at the airport. This would include aviation areas of powerplant, airframe, aircraft manufacturing, aviation avionics, composite propellers, airport administration, and support services. We currently have 60 students involved in this initiative and are looking forward to doubling this offering next year.
What do you feel is the most challenging barrier at this time in meeting the educational needs of students in your district?
The most challenging barrier at this time in meeting the educational needs of students in Highlands County is filling our teaching positions with highly effective teachers. Currently, Highlands County has about 8% of our teaching positions filled with long-term subs. We are using a wide array of strategies to tackle this barrier and are seeing some positive results through our Grow Your Own Program and intense recruiting. While this immediate need is very obvious and must be addressed, I do believe that we have an underlying challenge that is equally important and demands our attention. Effective leadership is key to teacher recruitment and retention! I believe that for schools to thrive, there must be great servant leaders in place on each campus. School-based leaders have a tremendous influence on school culture, staff morale, as well as teacher recruitment and retention. In Highlands County, we have many new school-based leaders and I believe it is critical that as a school district, we provide these new leaders necessary support and training to ensure their success as instructional leaders while strengthening their ability to engage in meaningful work with people by inspiring a culture of genuine care, and organizing everyone around a purpose that exceeds the everyday work they do individually. School-based leadership is hard work and not for the faint of heart, but with the right skills and expertise, it can be abundantly gratifying as leaders observe teachers flourish in their practice and students excel in their accomplishments.
What do you feel is the most pressing issue facing public education as a whole?
I believe the most pressing issue facing public education as a whole is misinformation. This misinformation has led to a perception by some that public education is failing and damaging kids. While there are perceived threats of issues coming into our schools that need to be guarded against, the spread of misinformation about what is happening in our schools is overshadowing the job that our dedicated men and women are doing every day. The misinformation about what is occurring in our schools sounds like this," I have heard" …." People have told me" …." I've heard reports" … without having any first-hand account to support these statements. Social media is rampant with this type of misinformation and individuals share with no concern for accuracy. The encroachment of this type of activity is a threat to the effectiveness of our schools. Let me take a moment to share what I see firsthand as I spend time in our schools every week. I see teachers and administrators following state statutes and rules. I see instructors covering state-approved and mandated standards. I see students hard at work to be successful while facing many challenges. I see community volunteers and teacher sponsors pouring into students. I see teachers sacrificing greatly so their students may be successful and safe in schools. They get to work early and stay late, and give all of themselves for their students, celebrating their success and weeping for them because they know the unimaginable challenges some children face. Those who spread misinformation usually have an ulterior motive for their actions. Regrettably, many people will believe without verifying the facts. Students have never, through the course of history, had the options and opportunities that are now provided in public schools across our state. We have much to be proud of and we must continue to magnify the truth and share the success of public education!
Outside of being a superintendent, what is something that your colleagues may not know about you that you would like to share.
Some of my colleagues might not know that my husband and I had one new grandchild born every year for ten straight years. That was quite a decade! Our first grandchild was born on my husband's 50th birthday. He hasn't celebrated a birthday since.
Individual you admire most for their positive impact on public education:
Mr. Wally Cox, the former superintendent of schools in Highlands County, is the individual that I admire most for his positive impact on public education. Mr. Cox was a servant leader and served Highlands County schools for over 40 years. He served in the role of superintendent for 16 years and was loved by his employees and this community! Mr. Cox provided opportunities for others to grow and learn. I am forever thankful for his willingness to mentor me as a school-based leader, district leader, and now in the role of superintendent.
“Do what you can with what you have where you are.” -Theodore Roosevelt
Book you are currently or recently finished reading:
I just finished reading "Live Life in Crescendo" by Stephen R. Covey & Cynthia Covey Haller. I received this book at our last FADSS conference, from our Leader in Me business partner.
Any additional comments & thoughts you would like to share?
Final thoughts: The work in public education is filled with challenges and I find that it is easy to forget to celebrate each moment along the way. Board meetings in Highlands County had typically been short, sweet, and pretty uneventful. The past couple of years has been quite different. Much more controversy, many more negative comments from the podium, and the loud voices of a few drowned out the positive happenings at our schools. This past year to help communicate some of the great happenings of our students, staff, and schools, I decided that I would begin each board meeting with a "Highlands Highlight". This might be celebrating a student, a school initiative, honoring a veteran teacher, or a specific program. One way or the other we were going to begin our meetings with a celebration. After each highlight, I took the opportunity to share a poem that is very special to me. The title of the poem is a "Book of Tools" and had been shared with me by a very special pastor many years ago. He would share this poem with our congregation so regularly that the entire congregation would begin to recite it together as he began the poem. He was a very special pastor and had a tremendous influence on my life. After I share the poem with the individual or individuals being celebrated, I give them a small stone to remember they have a choice each day to be a stepping stone or a stumbling block. I encourage them to continue to use their life to be a stepping stone. This small adjustment in our meetings has encouraged many.
Each of us has a choice every day of how we are going to lead. It is a tremendous honor to serve alongside each one of you across this state that are truly striving to be a stepping stone every day for students and families in your communities. I hope you enjoy this poem and at our next FADSS conference, I'll bring you a stone.
Book of Tools
Isn't It Strange?
That princes and kings,
And clowns that caper
In sawdust rings,
And common folk
Like you and me
Are builders for eternity?
Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass,
A book of rules;
And each must make -
Err life is flown -
A stumbling block
Or a stepping stone.
– R. Lee Sharpe