Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trigaux: Amid a record turnout, regional technology group spotlights successes, desire to do more


    ST. PETERSBURG — They came. They saw. They celebrated Tampa Bay's tech momentum.

    A record turnout event by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, held May 24 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, featured a panel of area tech executives talking about the challenges encountered during their respective mergers and acquisitions. Show, from left to right, are: Gerard Purcell, senior vice president of global IT integration at Tech Data Corp.; John Kuemmel, chief information officer at Triad Retail Media, and Chris Cate, chief operating officer at Valpak. [Robert Trigaux, Times]
  2. Take 2: Some fear Tampa Bay Next transportation plan is TBX redux


    TAMPA — For many, Wednesday's regional transportation meeting was a dose of deja vu.

    The Florida Department of Transportation on Monday announced that it was renaming its controversial Tampa Bay Express plan, also known as TBX. The plan will now be known as Tampa Bay Next, or TBN. But the plan remains the same: spend $60 billion to add 90 miles of toll roads to bay area interstates that are currently free of tolls. [Florida Department of Transportation]
  3. Hailed as 'pioneers,' students from St. Petersburg High's first IB class return 30 years later


    ST. PETERSBURG — The students came from all over Pinellas County, some enduring hot bus rides to a school far from home. At first, they barely knew what to call themselves. All they knew was that they were in for a challenge.

    Class of 1987 alumni Devin Brown, from left, and D.J. Wagner, world history teacher Samuel Davis and 1987 graduate Milford Chavous chat at their table.
  4. Flower boxes on Fort Harrison in Clearwater to go, traffic pattern to stay


    I travel Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater often and I've noticed that the travel lanes have been rerouted to allow for what looks like flower boxes that have been painted by children. There are also a few spaces that push the travel lane to the center that have no boxes. Is this a permanent travel lane now? It …

  5. Palm Harbor boat dealer facing litany of complaints of bad deals


    PALM HARBOR — With an aging father sick in the hospital and a son just graduating high school, Andrew Kashella, in between jobs, knew what he had to do.

    A sign on a front window of Gulf Coast Boat Sales, 37517 Us Highway 19 N, in Palm Harbor, notifies people they are under restructuring  The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has received 20 complaints against Gulf Coast Boat Sales in Palm Harbor. Complainants say they sold the shop their boats and never got paid and/or paid for boats they never received. Pinellas County Consumer Protection is leading the investigation.