Three Hernando schools make gains

Devon Pratser, left, assists Shalaya Prince, 10, in selecting a math word problem game during class at Spring Hill Elementary School. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Devon Pratser, left, assists Shalaya Prince, 10, in selecting a math word problem game during class at Spring Hill Elementary School. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published March 7, 2018

School grades released by the Florida Department of Education this summer showed most Hernando County schools chugging steadily toward an A. But three schools — and their principals — made strides that stood out.

Spring Hill Elementary School rose from a B to an A, and both Parrott Middle School and Nature Coast Technical High School jumped from a C to a B. While each schools faced its own challenges, the top administrators all credit their gains to a new culture they've carefully constructed on their campuses.

Turning around a failing Title 1, or school with a high percentage of children from low-income families, had been a goal for Michael Maine, principal of Spring Hill Elementary. Still, when he came to the school in 2015 from Challenger K-8, a high-performing magnet school, he was overwhelmed.

Morale was devastatingly low, he said, and teachers and students were leaving in droves. Word of the dilapidated D school's struggles had spread throughout the county.

"Spring Hill Elementary had a bad rap all over town," Maine said. "We were our own worst enemy."

During his first meeting with staff, the principal readied his troops.

"Things are changing today," he told them. "It's time to start fresh."

Maine's game plan was multifaceted and rooted in a desire to change the crumbled culture the community had come to know. Each year since coming to the school, he's come up with a motto to promote a common theme across campus. This year's is: "Never Stop Believing. You Matter: Every Child! Every Day!"

"Students should know that they bring something to the table," Maine said, "and we need to tap into the unique ability of every single child. At our school, students will know they matter, and they are valued."

That personalized education strategy has been implemented at Nature Coast, too, where Superintendent Lori Romano says principal Toni-Ann Noyes has created a "family culture centered around improvement."

When a student struggles, Noyes and school staffers work together to identify the student's challenges and strengths and form an individualized plan to get them back on track.

"She leads her team in a way that guides and supports the overall mission to improve," Romano said. "Plans are put in place to intervene early."

Noyes said she sees her job as "picking up where parents left off," and making sure students know that no matter what, "we aren't going to give up on you."

The family feel also has taken over at Parrott Middle School, said principal Brent Gaustad.

"You can't turn a school around without letting people know that you care, that you're invested," he said.

In recent years, Gaustad has used technology to amp up everyday processes at the school and save teachers time. Apps track attendance, log disciplinary reports and more, he said.

"Teachers have enough to do and should be able to focus on teaching, so whatever I can do technology-wise to save them time, I try to do that," he said.

All three principals agreed that one of the biggest elements of improving a school is getting the staff to trust the administration. It takes time, Maine said, but the payoff is grand.

"There's nothing out there that's a magic wand ... You just start with the willing and build momentum and excitement, and let the rest take care of itself," Maine said. "There is never a perfect culture, but we are headed in the right direction and building upon it."

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.