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New principal brings a 'no-nonsense and nurturing' style to Melrose Elementary's turnaround bid

Nikita Reed's heels clacked as she stepped to the center of the cafeteria.

Her staff, wearing black-and-turquoise shirts, had already circled the room to introduce themselves over the microphone.

They surrounded her now at Melrose Elementary's Sept. 8 open house, the first such gathering since a major re-form effort replaced half the staff and made Reed, 48, the school's third principal in five years.

Many Melrose families had already met her over the summer — at the neighborhood discount store, in church pews on Sunday, and in their driveways, where she pulled up in her truck to say hello.

Facing them again at the open house, she didn't mention the crisis that brought her from her native Memphis to St. Petersburg: Melrose's unfortunate status as one of the worst-performing elementary schools in the state. Instead, Reed gave a brief, friendly welcome.

"We all want to be a success factory this year," she said. "This is the only thing we're speaking here at Melrose."

• • •

Reed had little idea what she was getting herself into. She had never visited St. Petersburg, much less the school she would be assigned to lead.

She knew she wanted a change. And the details didn't matter.

A 1st Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and a single mother of a son away at college, she was looking to move. Memphis, after all, was where she began her career in education 26 years ago.

She considered Dallas and Atlanta. Then she saw a fellow Memphis principal, Antonio Burt, post an announcement on social media. He was Pinellas County's new director of school leadership, tasked with turning around Melrose and other struggling schools in the district.

They had met years ago as principals of struggling elementary schools. Both schools have improved, and Reed moved on to lead a charter middle school. She called Burt on a whim, not having read "Failure Factories," the Tampa Bay Times series that chronicled the decline of Melrose and four other elementary schools in south St. Petersburg.

"You think they have any positions?" she asked.

Reed said she flew to Pinellas for a team interview to be principal of one of the five schools and stayed at MacDill Air Force Base. For exercise, she ran along the shoreline, taking in the view. Tampa Bay soothed her.

She said she didn't have the opportunity to visit any of the five schools, but did drive around the neighborhood.

"It's just serving, helping children," Reed said. "That's it. Nothing else. There wasn't any judgment."

Burt said Reed fit Melrose's need for someone demanding change for the voiceless.

"During our interactions, I realized that she had a relentless drive to excel, strong instructional knowledge, confidence to lead, and the ability to influence ... results," he wrote in an email. "These skills were needed at Melrose based on the current needs."

It was only later that Reed came across the Times series and started asking Burt questions.

"I started reading and I called him and I said, 'Oh, my goodness,' " she said. "He said, 'Don't read all that, all that's not true.' So I stopped reading."

Burt said he wanted her to form her own opinion, based on her own observations.

"I was telling people that I had gotten a position here and so some of them started reading it," Reed said. "And that's what I said. I said, 'No, just don't worry about reading that. Let's just go and help the scholars out in St. Petersburg.' "

She finally got to walk the halls of Melrose the month after her appointment was announced in April.

• • •

Marisa Robinson was used to someone from Melrose calling her six or seven times a day, interrupting her at work. Last year, her son kept getting suspended from kindergarten and her third-grader frequently threw tantrums.

"They're doing something better," said Robinson, 33, who also has two other children in first and fifth grades at Melrose. "I didn't get one phone call yet. This year, there's none of that."

Many parents weaving through classrooms at the Melrose open house said they noticed a few changes in the first few weeks of school: They liked their teachers, there is more communication between staff and parents, and behavior problems are dealt with at the school level. They attributed many of those changes to the new principal.

Reed, who has settled in the Bardmoor area, says she purposely frequents businesses in the Melrose neighborhood to engage with the community. She encourages teachers to write positive notes home to parents, and gives parents her cellphone number.

Much of the turnaround process, she said, is paying attention to details and listening. It's about creating a welcoming environment for children, from aesthetics to a teacher greeting children at the door. Relevant, powerful lesson plans and consistent systems for students and parents are a must, she said.

"I'm no-nonsense and nurturing," Reed said. "I just say what I mean and mean what I say. And also support what I'm saying with data."

She also did away with a designated "refocus room" for children who misbehave. That method, she said, takes away from time inside the classroom.

"She don't play," observed Nekesha Lester, a 33-year-old mother of three Melrose students, ages 11, 9 and 6.

Clarissa Matthews, a first-grade teacher in her first year at the school, compared Melrose under Reed to an academy.

"She's strong, she's nurturing, she's firm, she's military," said Matthews, who last year helped at Lakewood Elementary. "But she's positive of how we're going to push through the school year."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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