Leechele Booker held the gymnasium door open Friday afternoon, cool air blasting across her face, as a never-ending line of Hernando High students shuffled in to get their schedules. • "Hey you, how ya doing?" the district's newest high school principal shouted to a student, a smile stretched across her face. • "I'm so glad to see you," she said to another. • "This is my girl here," she laughed.
While Friday may have been Booker's first student orientation as a high school principal, it felt much more like a reunion.
There's good reason for that: As a longtime Parrott Middle School principal and teacher, she had been around many of these students before.
Throughout the afternoon, Booker, who turns 42 today, doled out hug after hug, greeting many of the students by name. She knew some of their backgrounds, their unique stories. She asked them about their tennis games. Their horses.
"I was shocked," said Rebecca Ploettner, 17, a senior. "She was there when I graduated middle school. Now she'll be there when I graduate high school."
That's a good thing, said Ploettner.
"I'm really close with her," she said. "She knows a lot about me. She knows my potential. She knows I can do good things. It's good to have positive people around you."
Freshman Dakota Echols, also a Parrott alum, agreed.
"She is a really good person," the 14-year-old said. "It's better to be used to them than strangers."
Booker, at least among the students who went to Parrott, comes to Hernando with a reputation for enforcing the rules.
"Anything that needs to be changed, she'll change it," said 15-year-old freshman William Girard, noting that it was a good thing.
When Leah Smith, a 15-year-old sophomore, found out about her new principal, she said Facebook buzzed to life. It's going to be an interesting year, she remembered people writing.
"She's fun for some kids and a little too strict for others," Smith said. "She was usually nice and really fun. She still had some rules, but it was usually respectable rules."
"It's definitely nice to see her again."
Booker, who spent the past 17 years at Parrott, four as principal, said she's ready for the challenge, which begins in earnest on Monday, the first day of the 2012-13 school year.
"I'm really excited," she said. "I'm nervous."
It's a big job.
The district's oldest high school has more than 1,400 students and about 110 teachers. Just learning the names is a task.
Roughly 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and fewer than half go on to college.
But the school has been on the uptick in recent years under the leadership of Ken Pritz, who was named an assistant superintendent this summer.
"He's done a phenomenal job with taking Hernando to the next level," Booker said. "It's my goal to take it even higher."
Under Pritz, the school went from a D grade to a C to a B for the 2010-11 school year. Last year's state school grades have not yet been released.
After five years receiving D grades, Pritz said, Hernando High had a bad reputation. He said he and the staff worked hard to make improvements.
"She just kind of needs to keep it going," he said of Booker. "It takes a lot of hard work. It can slip if you don't stay on it."
Booker said that will be no problem.
"I consider myself to be a high-performing principal, if you look at my track record," she said. "The likelihood of it going backward for me is slim to none. I'm pretty confident in that."
Pritz has worked with Booker for years.
He was actually the one who hired her at Parrott as a teacher. She comes with strong credentials, he said: She's good with kids, demands excellence and doesn't tolerate any nonsense, he said.
"I think she's a great lady and the perfect fit for the school," he said. "She was the one I was hoping would get the job."
In Booker, the district's oldest high school got someone who knows the students and knows the community. She's had two daughters who have graduated from the school in recent years.
"That's really important at Hernando High School because it's a community school. She's respected there," Pritz said.
He said that knowing the community is especially important, given the expansive alumni base and the school's age and role in the county.
Having a presence in the community is one of the biggest challenges, Pritz said.
"You have to be kind of visible," he said. "You have to be out there."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.