RIVERVIEW — At 32, Derrick McLaughlin lacks the wrinkles and headful of gray hair that many might expect to see in an elementary school's leader. • McLaughlin's boyish looks belie the authority he holds as the new principal at Summerfield Elementary School. • Just 10 years ago, he earned his first college degree.
McLaughlin is in charge of a school when many of his peers are just settling into a career. McLaughlin, who became principal this summer after a five-year stint as vice principal at Summerfield, said his age does not matter. He believes he is well trained and prepared.
"If you have a strong vision for a school," he said, "I think age is not important. I've not had anyone say, 'You're too young!'
"Instead, I hear, 'What a breath of fresh air.' "
Of the roughly 240 principals at Hillsborough County's public schools, more than 20 are in their 30s.
School district officials said principals, whether age 30 or 60, are prepared to lead when they are assigned to a school.
"Age is not a factor," said Lewis Brinson, the district's assistant superintendent for administration. "It's how you perform. It's your work experience."
Brinson said candidates are pulled from a pool of vice principals, and only those who have performed at a high level as assistant principals are tapped to lead a school.
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Parents should not fret over McLaughlin's age, said Tricia McManus, director of leadership development for the county's public schools. He is well trained for the job.
The district received a $12.5 million grant last year from the New York-based Wallace Foundation to embark on the "Principal Pipeline," which revolves around the recruiting, training, professional development and support of principals.
New principals have always had training, McManus said, but the grant allowed the district to intensify this effort. In addition, new principals now have mentors, called principal coaches. These mentors are pulled from the principal ranks to help newer principals manage their job.
McManus said the Principal Pipeline program will continue when the grant ends because it is crucial to select, train and support the people who lead the county's schools.
A teacher has the most impact on the students in the class. But, the principal can impact student achievement "across the board," McManus said.
"The principal plays a key role," said, McManus, a former principal. "The principal sets the tone for the school. The principal can create a culture where teachers want to be there. They create that expectation of higher learning."
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McLaughlin is everywhere on campus and likes it that way. He enjoys watching teachers and students in action. He doesn't mind if students pull him aside to talk about problems at home. He also is just as eager to listen to his staff and to share ideas on what works best for Summerfield's kids.
His least favorite place? The principal's office.
"I like to be out there," he said, pointing to the campus. "That's my roots. I was a teacher."
McLaughlin, a Rhode Island native, worked as a teacher for about five years and then the county promoted him to assistant principal. In addition to his bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of Tampa, McLaughlin earned a master's degree in educational leadership from the University of South Florida.
McLaughlin said the Principal Pipeline helps him do a better job. He likes his mentor, former school principal Shay McRae, and said he appreciates the district training.
"Instead of saying, here are the keys to the school," McLaughlin said, it's about the support system.
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Jennifer West was 32 when she was appointed principal at Riverview Elementary School. She had county training but no assigned mentor. So, West had to rely on a principal at a neighboring school to help her with the transition.
Now 35, West is the first-year principal at Lincoln Elementary Magnet School in Plant City. She started the school year with a mentor and said the transition has been much easier this time due to the Principal Pipeline.
West meets with her principal coach, Larry Sykes, about twice a month. Sykes has years of experience as a principal, including time at a magnet school.
"He had a perspective on what it was like to be at both schools," West said. "It helped me with that transition."
West said her age isn't an issue with her staff. But, sometimes, her age surprises parents.
"I had a parent say, " 'Wow, You're younger than I thought you were,' " she said, laughing.
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Olayinka Alege assumed the top spot at Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace in April. At 31, he is the youngest principal at a district school.
Alege, who gained experience as a teacher and an assistant principal in the district, held hopes of leading a school one day but didn't know it would happen so quickly.
Why did he get promoted?
"I think I'm passionate about getting things done," he said. "I'm goal-oriented."
Alege jokingly said that he does try to appear older by sporting facial hair and by wearing professional attire. But on a serious note, he said he has a wonderful staff and has not had any problems working with teachers, despite his age.
"They understand we have a job to do," he said. "They work with me."
In fact, Alege thinks his age helps him relate to the students. He has high standards for students but also likes to inject fun into the school year. So, he pipes in music into the cafeteria and allows students to play video games and enjoy recess — based on a reward system for attendance and grades.
Alege said today's principals need to "think outside the box."
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McLaughlin said age shouldn't play a role in a principal's hiring. He thinks he does a good job and knows plenty of older principals who are great at their job, too.
But, he said, he does have something in common with parents at his school. His daughter, Emerson, 5, is in kindergarten at Summerfield.
"My daughter is going through the same thing as their children," he said. "I'm living it."
Teachers are not surprised when McLaughlin pops into their classroom. His work ethic is well known throughout the campus. They like him because he is dedicated to their school and school community. And, yes, they know he's young.
His age has been a plus, some say.
"He brings a lot of energy," said Jill Wilkerson, 47, a Summerfield kindergarten teacher. "A lot of enthusiasm. He's fresh. He's not afraid to try new things. It energizes the school."
Though they do occasionally rib McLaughlin about his age, Summerfield teacher Alicia Richardson, 45, said no one jokes about the way he is handling the principal's job.
"He knows his stuff," Richardson said.
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]