MOON LAKE — For more than a week now, Cara Allen has been splitting her time between Mary Giella Elementary in Shady Hills and Moon Lake Elementary, about 6 miles away.
She has been getting to know the teachers and staff at Moon Lake while clearing her desk and saying goodbye to everyone she has worked with at Giella in the past seven years.
This was not how Allen, 53, planned to spend the days leading to the first day of school, Aug. 18.
But when superintendent Heather Fiorentino came calling with a problem — the recently appointed principal of Moon Lake Elementary had abruptly quit — Allen was not about to reject the request to take the helm.
"It's part of the job. You go where you're needed," Allen said with a shrug. "Obviously, they felt I had something to offer Moon Lake."
The administration turned to Allen as a steady hand to lead a school that needs some stability after a period of repeated transition. Former principal Donna Busby left the school in April to run the district's newest elementary school in Wesley Chapel, and her replacement, Susan Barcellino, resigned after just four months on the job.
"We wanted an experienced administrator to go in there," assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly explained. "Cara has the experience in a Title 1 school and has the experience with that region of the county. … We felt she was the best match for the needs of that school."
Allen, a teacher's daughter who grew up in New Jersey playing school, said she looks forward to the challenge.
"I know it's difficult for them because the principal has left so quickly," she said. "I need to make them at ease and feel comfortable with me."
That's a pretty easy thing for Allen to do. She's got a winning smile and an easy-going personality that gets people to enjoy her company and her leadership.
"It's much easier to motivate people with kindness," she said, eschewing the bossy manager style.
'Ducks in a row'
Allen praised Moon Lake's academics, saying the school must "have all its ducks in a row" to have earned a B grade from the state. She expected to spend much of her time getting to know the staff, students and parents, so she can work within the existing school culture.
"I can't pretend I go in there knowing everything they need, because I certainly do not. What they have obviously is working," she said. "It's just a matter of building some trust and knowing we're all going to work together."
Allen also depends on her "me time" to keep her focus.
You might find her power walking with weights near her Spring Hill home. Or working out at the local YMCA. Or on the soccer field, either playing in her women's league or watching her daughter compete in club games.
She also enjoys her time at the beach, reading medical mysteries and getting a tan. Talking to her family pets — three dogs and five cats, all rescues — offers some relaxing time, too.
"I keep things in perspective and know if you get too crazy then you're not going to accomplish anything," Allen said. "And if you don't take care of yourself, how are you going to take care of anyone else?"
As she leaves Giella, Allen said she doesn't think much unfinished business remains for the next principal.
"We are ready to roll," she said. "I'm just proud that Mary Giella has become a school that people talk about in a positive way, and that my families are proud to be here and kids want to come here. That's what it is all about."
Allen plans to be at Moon Lake full time starting next week. Katie Lail, assistant principal at West Zephyrhills Elementary, will be Giella's new principal.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
3 things you don't know about Cara Allen
• A New Jersey native, Allen loves Bruce Springsteen and tries to catch him every time he performs nearby.
• Allen's family is filled with educators. Her mom was a teacher in New York, and her son is headed to South Korea to teach for a year.
• Allen has three college degrees and plans to pursue a fourth — a doctorate in curriculum — as soon as she gets her bearings at Moon Lake. She doesn't want to be a superintendent, though, saying her heart is in the schools and not the district office.