It was a monumental task for a first-year principal. Moseley Elementary in Palatka had earned a D in Florida's school grading system for three consecutive years. In 2001, the Putnam County school superintendent tapped Sonya Jackson, an up-and-coming assistant principal, to help the school improve.
Jackson focused on staff development and became known as a "visible" principal, visiting classes and engaging students on a daily basis, recalled Cynthia Asia, Putnam's director of elementary education - and Jackson's boss - at the time.
Moseley earned a C the next year, just a few points shy of a B, and made annual yearly progress standards set by the federal government.
"She actually turned that school around," Asia said of Jackson.
Now, as interim superintendent of schools in Hernando County, Jackson has a similar challenge: Act as a steadying force in a school district that has endured a good bit of turmoil in the last year.
Jackson says she's up for to the task. She has set her sights on keeping the position.
"I see myself as being a calming factor," she said. "That's just the person I am."
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Jackson, 45, was born the Panhandle town of Quincy. Her mother worked in the cafeteria of a local elementary school; her father supervised a ward at a nearby mental health hospital.
There were several educators among her relatives, including her Auntie Annette, an elementary school teacher who lived next door.
"It's something that's part of the family, and something I always wanted to do," Jackson said.
A graduate of Greensboro High School, she earned a bachelor's degree in elementary and early childhood education from Florida A&M University. By 1995, she had master's degrees in elementary education and educational leadership from the University of North Florida.
Meanwhile, she worked as a teacher at Kelley Smith Elementary School in Putnam. By then, she had already set her sights on a superintendency as a long-term career goal.
"Certainly some of the administrators I worked with were very supportive and spoke highly of my leadership abilities along the way, and that kind of helped seal the idea that one day I could be superintendent," Jackson said.
After a short stint as dean of students at Palatka High School, Jackson headed back to Kelley Smith Elementary, this time as an assistant principal. She spent four years there.
"She approached her job with a lot of energy as well as knowledge," said Asia, the Putnam administrator. "Her management style is one of getting her faculty involved in the leadership process."
Jackson was responsible for the K-5 curriculum at Kelley, and her talents in that area began to shine, Asia said.
"She was very interested in how to design curriculum that would keep the interests of the students, but also make sure the teachers were comfortable with whatever program or textbooks they were using," she said.
Despite her talents, the decision to put Jackson at Moseley, the floundering Title I elementary school, raised some eyebrows, Asia recalled.
"There was a lot on the plate at the very beginning, but she was able to build faculty morale and work toward high student achievement," she said.
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Jackson arrived in Hernando County in 2004 after her husband, Michael, landed a job as pharmacy director at Oak Hill Hospital. She had applied for administrator posts at Hernando and Pasco schools, but got a job as coordinator of staff development in the Hernando district office.
It was trial by fire, Jackson recalls. The deadline for a staff development audit due to the state loomed.
"We really had to work hard to get up to snuff and be prepared for that," she said.
The audit went well, she said. Shortly after that, the executive director of school services position opened up, and then-superintendent Wendy Tellone promoted Jackson.
Tellone couldn't be reached for comment. But Jackson said she figures her ability to come into the district and catch up during a crunch time was a factor.
As director of school services, Jackson oversaw several departments, including exceptional education, professional development, adult education, student services, and elementary and secondary curriculum.
Jim Knight, director of student services, has worked with Jackson since she was hired in 2004. Jackson has an open-door policy, Knight said.
"She always listens to people," he said. "She's more than wiling to stop what she's doing to hear your point of view."
Jackson earlier this year had been tapped by superintendent Wayne Alexander to serve as principal at Nature Coast Technical High School, her first school-based job in Hernando County.
But in June, she applied and was hired by Alexander for the newly created assistant superintendent position. Jackson told the selection committee that the assistant job included many of the duties she already had. A seven-member committee of parents, teachers, district staffers and community members recommended Jackson from a list of seven finalists.
Last month, the School Board voted to part ways with Alexander. Board members said he could no longer effectively lead the district. The political turmoil in the months leading up to that vote took a toll on staffers, Jackson said.
"It does affect the staff and the high-level administrators," she said. "We just want to make sure we're educating kids."
The board voted 3-2 to have Jackson take over as interim superintendent. Among her supporters was Pat Fagan, who said Jackson had proven she was capable and deserved a turn at the top.
Board member Sandra Nicholson supported Jackson, but didn't vote for the contract because it gave her a 10 percent increase in her roughly $96,000 salary.
Then-Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield wanted someone from outside the district to take over and lend a fresh perspective. She also suggested Jackson should share responsibility for an apparent lack of oversight on some issues, including the Nature Coast Technical High admissions debacle. And Bonfield said she worried about Jackson taking the job because she would be a candidate for the permanent post.
Jackson says she understands Bonfield's concerns, but feels confident she's right for the job.
"You have someone in place who knows the issues," Jackson said. "I certainly would see that as a plus to keep things moving in the right direction."
She dismissed the notion that she might use the opportunity to campaign to keep the job.
"You put the application in and you move forward," she said.
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The board has approved a timetable to have a permanent superintendent hired by February and in place no later than July 1. Jackson said she doesn't plan any bold moves during what even she acknowledges is a trial run.
She said one of her top goals is school improvement and meeting the latest set of federal and state accountability mandates, with an emphasis on the district's four high schools.
She said she will continue to focus on unifying the district's curriculum, an effort that she said has helped the district earn its overall B grade in the state's A Plus plan.
"That's the meat and potatoes," she said Thursday as she sat in her office, where photos of her son - a University of Central Florida graduate and now a hospital administrator in Tampa - and her grandson are prominently displayed. Gospel music played softly on a CD player near her desk.
Despite regular 12-hour days on the job, Jackson makes time for community service.
She serves or has served on the advisory boards for Eckerd Youth Camp, Oak Hill Hospital, St. Petersburg College, the United Way, Junior Achievement, as well as on the board of directors of the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco County.
One School Board member recently expressed concern that Jackson might be "too nice" to be superintendent. Jackson dismisses that.
"Some people mistake my meekness for weakness," Jackson said. "I see myself as a firm, fair and consistent leader."
Board members said this is the chance for Jackson to show her stuff. A big part of that is handling the scrutiny that goes along with the job, board member Nicholson said.
"It's a lot different being in that top seat," Nicholson said. "This is politics, and, like or not, she's stepped into the political arena."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.