LAND O'LAKES — The release of Florida's 2010-11 school grades found Pasco County with its first-ever F rating for an elementary school. After assessing the situation at Gulf Highlands Elementary, superintendent Heather Fiorentino removed the principal and appointed Kara Smucker, who has led A-rated Lake Myrtle Elementary for four years, to turn Gulf Highlands around.
Smucker spoke with the Times this week about her philosophy and goals for her new challenge.
Is getting transferred from one school to another what a principal wants?
Well, Dr. (David) Scanga (the assistant superintendent of elementary schools) came and spoke with me about going to Gulf Highlands. I really am excited about the opportunity to go over and work in that school community. . . . I used to work at Chasco Elementary as both the reading specialist at the time, and assistant principal. As assistant principal, I had one year there, and when I left they had 1,100 kids and they were opening up a new school, and that was Gulf Highlands. . . . So I am very familiar with the school community over there and I am looking forward to getting back and working in that community and making a difference.
You've been at a really successful school. Now you are going to a school that apparently has not been. How do you make a difference?
I really want to start out by looking at the whys and the purpose. At Lake Myrtle, I've developed this system where we really have to believe that every kid can learn and achieve. I want to reflect on that moving into this school and really build into every person, if they are not already — in the staff, the community, the parents and the children themselves — that they can make a difference. We have to work together, though. Obviously, the district has confidence in me and believes in me, that when I go to this school I am going to make a difference. But it's not just me that is going to make a difference. I am going to bring vision and belief in them that we can do this together, by collaboration and by problem-solving. So it's not going to be me alone. It's going to be me working with the parents, staff, children and community on how we're going to make it happen.
Do you have any thoughts going in there? Have you had a chance to assess the situation?
I'm glad you asked me that. . . . I haven't yet been over to the building to be in there and really have had time with the assistant principal and staff members. But of course I've looked at their website and the data. There are learning gains that have to be made. . . . Math is definitely an area that we need to relook at. So I'm still learning. This is just the beginning.
When you came to Lake Myrtle, it was a school on cruise control in some ways. It was very successful already. You continued the success by putting your own brand on it. Do you think this is going to be harder to do?
I've been a teacher leader in Title I schools. As a reading specialist, I had many leadership opportunities that Dr. (John) Mann (district director of leadership development) involved me in, as well as when I was an assistant principal. So the things I've learned as a leader haven't just come from my experiences at Lake Myrtle. . . . I've had lots of different experiences that I will bring to this school. I am not worried at all. I know I am going to make a difference. But again, it's not just me. It's going to be by collaborating with all of the stakeholders to make it happen.
I'm interested in whether it's harder to go into a school that's successful and keep it successful, or if you think it will be harder to go into a school that has been unsuccessful and make it successful.
I don't want to say one way is harder than another. It goes back to whether you are going to stay focused, develop a vision and stay on course with that vision. I've used a lot of Jon Gordon's work on the Energy Bus. I invite people to get on my bus and I show them the way that we're going and I take them along by providing professional development. I'm just fortunate I have a strong curriculum background, as well as I feel I do a great job in building relationships with people and building the belief in them that we can make this happen. And I truly believe that whether I'm here at Lake Myrtle or whether I'm at Gulf Highlands, whatever the challenges are, if you can stay focused on that purpose and provide the professional development, have teachers who will reflect on their practices, and we really can collaborate and work together to make a difference, we will no matter what school you're in.
Are you going to bring people with you? Are you charged with throwing people out and bringing new people in?
No. I spoke with the assistant principal (on Tuesday) and we're fully staffed. I don't have any intentions at this time. It's still new to me. . . . That is something that if you are asking me today it is not my intention. The assistant principal was sharing with me that this summer they had a voluntary meeting to look at the data. They had 40-some staff members come to that meeting. They want to make a difference.
So you think that makes a difference that they all want to be there and be part of the process?
Of course. Of course. Of course. If you want to make it happen and if I can set up the things I was already mentioning . . . give them time to collaborate as grade levels, to be able to problem-solve data together, if I can put that all in play for them, I believe it will make a difference.
So what happens to Lake Myrtle now? What do you leave behind?
I definitely want you to know I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this school community. Not only obviously the teachers, but the parents and the community partners, business partners that support this school. And the kids. I am really going to miss our Turtles. I will. . . . What I feel is that the time that I have spent here and the direction that we're going in, and our focus — we have rallied around the saying here that by working together we will make a difference for every Turtle. And I know that is going to continue to happen.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.