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New principal energizes Sunlake High School

LAND O'LAKES — Steve Williams cut an unassuming profile as he passed through the sidelines at Sunlake High School's Friday night football game.

Medium height, balding and bespectacled, he looked as if he could be anybody's dad or a teacher. He obviously was a Seahawks fan, with the logo emblazoned on his collared shirt.

But he was clearly much more.

Two girls leaned over a fence and shouted to Williams as he busily tapped on his iPhone.

"Mr. Williams, did you already give away the shirt?" they asked.

It's gone, he said of the specially designed T-shirts that students could win in Williams' school trivia contest on Twitter. But there's another chance coming soon, so stay tuned, he added.

He walked another couple of feet. Students in the packed stands held up a giant cardboard cutout of his head and started chanting: "We want selfies!"

Their new principal obliged, using his phone to take a picture of himself with the group.

"He's a rock star," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said.

• • •

Sunlake High desperately needed new blood.

Just ask the students.

"Last year was hostile," senior Jonathan Quiros said. "The administrators didn't like each other. There were a lot of fights."

"Our principal just did not like kids," said junior Sarah Gaines. "He didn't really approve of anything. He always had a frown on his face. You couldn't even say hi to him."

Or ask the parents.

"The pulse was always strained," said Heidi Busot, band booster president. "The needs of the students were met, but overall, well, it's hard to explain."

Or, check with the staff, which gave Sunlake the worst ratings of any Pasco public school in a district-sponsored winter survey of employees, students and parents. Superintendent Kurt Browning conducted the review shortly after taking office, to get anonymous feedback on how the schools were operating.

Sunlake fared among the worst in several areas including climate, culture, decision making and leadership. Nearly 30 percent of staff respondents said the school's overall atmosphere is positive and helps students learn. Related questions netted similar responses.

"We don't want to look backwards," said Tera Cignetti, a science teacher and ex-cheer coach.

Browning knew something had to change. So he started at the top.

Two of the school's four assistant principals were removed. Principal Garry Walthall retired shortly before Browning announced administrative reappointments.

Williams never had led a school. But he was the only candidate considered for Sunlake's top job.

"You have to have somebody at the lead who has a vision and is able to communicate that vision and is able to bring people along," said Larson, whom Williams impressed during an earlier interview for the principal post at Wiregrass Ranch High. "He was ideal to make it happen."

Sunlake opened in 2007 to relieve crowding at nearby Land O'Lakes High, and had long labored to become more than an offshoot of the more established campus.

Upon his arrival, Williams worked with students, staff and the community to firm up Sunlake's own identity, one built around a new set of priorities that goes beyond some fluffy mission statement tacked on a wall only to be ignored.

Safety. Academics. Pride.

"You are going to hear me say that 500 times," Williams said. "If we can do these three things with excellence, we will become the best school in the land."

• • •

Williams took over in early June. He had nine weeks before students returned to lift the cloud that shrouded Sunlake.

In short order, he whittled the number of school committees to three — one for each priority — and reshaped goals to fit within them. He challenged the staff and students to go "for the win," asking for their input on how to get there.

No more "us vs. them."

He met with every student, in groups of about 200, to make his expectations clear. He won backing from parents and community leaders to jump-start the PTSA, booster club and career programs that had withered.

Perhaps most important, he made himself available, both in person and on Twitter.

"They felt like someone was willing to speak their language," he said.

The reaction was immediate, and positive.

"Oh my gosh, the school is so amazing now," said Gaines, the junior, who's also drama club president. "It's because of our principal. He takes selfies with the students and puts them on Twitter. It's the thing now. He brought the spirit that we didn't have before."

Guidance counselor Helen Browning called the new school year "awesome."

"The students seem to be happier," she said, while selling school T-shirts. "The administration is unbelievably supportive of student involvement, very supportive of the teachers. It's a great place to work. ... It's as different as night and day."

Even 2013 graduate Wilmer Hernandez could sense it.

"I feel like it is much friendlier," Hernandez said, as he hung out with friends in the stands.

Students at lunch happily noted that they're allowed to listen to their music, text, or make calls, when they're not in class. Williams said he wants to promote responsible use of electronics, rather than enforcing the ban that had been in place.

Many teens also talked about the virtual elimination of campus fights.

"The school is more organized now," senior Kyle Peppler said. "I like that a lot."

• • •

Cheree Scefcyk was headed to her car from the school office when she spotted Williams.

"Mr. Williams," she said, stepping toward him, "you are doing an amazing job. I just wanted to tell you that."

She said her daughter, a junior, never wanted to come to school before. This year, she hasn't missed a day.

"I'm on the 12-year plan at Sunlake," Scefcyk said, mentioning that her son was in the first graduating class and another daughter will arrive after middle school. "I can tell you ... this has been the best four weeks in the past seven years."

Williams thanked her and smiled as she drove away.

District officials were heartened to hear that the overhaul had such an effect so quickly. "He has made it happen," Larson said.

They'll be conducting another climate survey later in the year.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

New principal energizes Sunlake High School 09/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 7:11pm]
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