VALRICO — Parents greeted the new Alafia Elementary principal with a standing ovation, a drastic change from the way the same group harshly criticized her predecessor just weeks earlier at the fractured school.
Following a question-and-answer session with superintendent MaryEllen Elia during a Dec. 17 meeting, soon-to-be principal Lisa Tierney-Jackson spoke to about 50 parents who assembled in the cafeteria for the latest on what's in store for the A-rated school.
"Things aren't going to get resolved overnight," Tierney-Jackson said. "But we will address the things that need to be fixed and the things we need to celebrate. I think it will be one of those places that parents say, 'I want my child there.' "
A mother of three, Tierney-Jackson will return to the place where she began her education career in 1992 when she takes over the Alafia job Jan. 6. She leaves Cypress Creek Elementary, where she has been the principal since 2005.
Current principal Ellyn Smith recently resigned and will help fill vacancies at district offices until a permanent post is announced. Through her husband, Ashley Smith, she said that tensions at the school had become a distraction to students.
Her resignation came months after frustrated parents complained about Smith's lack of leadership, high teacher turnover, low morale and student safety. The news also came on the heels of an assessment of the school that identified a "very stressful work environment," and made recommendations to improve its atmosphere.
Though eager for the fresh start, some parents at the meeting weren't about to let administrators off the hook for problems they say festered without action for too long.
"What is it you're going to do to ensure this isn't going to happen at other schools?" asked Dawn Nichols, mother of an Alafia kindergartener. "I cannot see how (Smith) could have been reviewed year after year without something in her file."
Elia said that she would re-evaluate the way principals are reviewed. Citing a breakdown in communication, she also said that the district shouldn't have gone so long without having meetings with parents.
Others brought up ongoing safety issues at the school. Designed as an open campus, the school will be fenced off to ensure that strangers can't enter. In the past, some parents have said that students wandered away.
One father said that he recently walked around the school without anyone questioning what he was doing.
"No one asked me who I was, what I was doing there, why I didn't have a (guest) sticker on my shirt," said Marcos Santiago.
"I hope you have a good holiday because you have a lot of work," he said to Tierney-Jackson.
Elia encouraged concerned parents to make an appointment with the new principal. Teachers and the staff at the school will continue to receive additional training, as was recommended by the school assessment, she added.
While pleased with the new principal, Weslene and Elijah Byrd hope that their fourth-grade daughter stays safe and gets the best possible education.
"We're definitely happy that we got a new principal," Weslene Byrd said. "But we'll have to see how it goes."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or 661-2454.