Tricia Simonsen always wanted to be a principal.
In Connecticut, where she grew up, her own principal seemed like someone who connected all the parts of the school, from teachers to students to families. He knew everyone, showed interested in their lives, and Simonsen worked hard to earn his positive attention.
Back then, her principal wasn't just a leader, but an example.
"Ultimately, from a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a principal."
Simonsen, who was recently named 2013 Elementary School Reading Leader of the Year by the Florida Reading Association, started out teaching at Ruskin Elementary, then taught at Mintz Elementary in Brandon until becoming assistant principal at Bevis Elementary School in Lithia. In 2004, she became the principal at that school.
This year, Simonsen, 45, began a new role as the principal at Valrico Elementary School.
Her effectiveness as a leader is still apparent at Bevis, says Tara Baker, a guidance counselor at that school, through both the school's test scores and Simonsen's relationships with students and teachers.
"She knew every kid here by name," Baker says. "Every kid."
At Bevis, Simonsen's door was always open, and she focused on helping teachers to work together between grade levels to help students succeed. It wasn't just about their scores, though, Baker says.
"She focused on the whole child."
At Valrico, teacher Julie Sparks already sees an impact because of Simonsen. She safeguards the teachers' time for instruction, keeping out interruptions. She has a great rapport with families, Sparks says, and a vision for the school.
"Everything she's done so far has really been respectful of what we're all here for, and that's the kids."
In her new role at Valrico, Simonsen is working to help support teachers as they implement new Common Core State Standards and also on literacy as a collaborative practice that's integrated into all subjects. She believes in creating a positive culture at school, she says, and wants to make herself visible and available to everyone.
Simonsen and her husband are the parents of two sons in high school. She has won a number of awards during her career, including Florida PTA Elementary Principal of the Year in 2012 and Hillsborough PTA Elementary Principal of the Year in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011.
Hillsborough County also had several other winners with the Florida Reading Association, she says, including Sandra Misciasci from Newsome High, who won High School Reading Teacher of the Year.
Simonsen still remembers the impact her own principal had on her, but the job itself has changed, she says. Principals are now more visible and more integrated into students' education as instructive leaders.
As she settles in to her new role at Valrico, students will see her in the car line, in the cafeteria, in the bus line and in their classrooms. She's working now to connect with students, she says, and hoping, as she was as a child, they'll be excited when they see their principal.
Kristen Hare can be reached at [email protected]