Focus on students is key, she says
By B.C. Manion
If you want to chat with Wesley Chapel High Principal Carin Nettles, chances are you won’t find her in her office.
She’s much more likely to be on the school’s grounds between class changes, or in the cafeteria while students eat lunch, or in a classroom observing a teacher at work.
On some days, she and her team of assistant principals plan special celebrations to show appreciation for the staff’s hard work. On Valentine’s Day, for instance, they hand-delivered valentines to every staff member and had a barbecue lunch for them.
Nettles, who has been at the helm at Wesley Chapel High for three years, is this year’s Secondary Principal of the Year in Pasco County Schools.
She said her most important jobs are listening and basing decisions on what’s best for students.
“I have to be able to hear what my teachers are saying and what my kids are saying,” Nettles said.
To make that happen, she manages her campus by paying attention not only to what people say, but also what they do.
“If the kids all sign up for this certain class, they’re telling you something,” Nettles said. By the same token, if registration in a particular class or program falls off, that’s telling, too.
Balancing needs is a huge part of a principal’s job, Nettles said. Lots of people turn to her with requests, so she has to keep her priorities straight.
“You have to keep your focus on what’s best for kids. If you do maintain that focus, you’ll make the best decisions for the school,” she said.
Kevin VanHelden, a senior, said Nettles’ leadership has transformed the school at 30651 Wells Road. When he arrived on campus four years ago, it was a drab, dull place, VanHelden said.
“Most of the classes were just gray,” he said. Now, the color scheme is white, Carolina blue and navy blue.
There have been other big changes, as well.
The school has gone from a “D” to an “A.” Its graduation rate has improved from 86.08 percent to 90.6 percent, and the dropout rate has declined 2.74 percent in 2009-10 to 1.43 percent.
VanHelden said Nettles has focused on academic achievement, has set high expectations and has boosted student spirit and teacher morale.
“Teachers feel more like they’re being appreciated, I think,” the 18-year-old said.
He described Nettles as diplomatic, but demanding, too.
“She lays the hammer down but she’s nice about it. She gets the job done, but she’s very polite.”
Nettles has tapped into an army of volunteers, especially parents.
When she arrived there were 90 members in the Parent Teacher Student Association. Now, there are nearly 200. The parents do all sorts of tasks. They change out locker combinations in the summer, help on painting crews, serve breakfast on testing days.
Heidi Bernaldo, president of the school’s PTSA, said Nettles has the energy and creativity to keep people engaged.
She applauds Nettles for being in touch with what’s happening on campus, enabling her to maintain tighter control.
“She’s not in her office, with the door shut. She is everywhere,” Bernaldo said.
Like VanHelden, the PTSA leader said the campus is more cheerful since Nettles arrived. “All of the hallways, all the interior walls were gray. It kind of looked like a hospital or a prison.”
Sandy Thompson, membership coordinator for PTSA, was delighted by Nettles’ honor.
“She’s very deserving. She’s really turned this school around. What’s she’s done is put the children first. As a parent, that’s what you want.”
Thompson said Nettles doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk, too: The principal plays kickball with the kids and works the drive-through at a school fundraiser.
Economics teacher Matt Kirouac, at Wesley Chapel High since 2005, said Nettles has clear expectations and sets high standards.
“She is straightforward. I think that’s probably the quality I most admire in her – I know what I have. Everything is right there, it’s right on the table.”
She welcomes staff input.
“If you have something you want to approach her about, she’s more than willing to hear it. What’s she’s looking for, though, is for you to help her find the solution,” Kirouac said.
Nettles started her career in special education and moved into administration because she wanted a broader reach.
“I felt like I could give more to a school, by just being free to think of programs,” Nettles said.
She said she believes in setting the bar high because she’s confident students and staff can and will rise to the occasion. She has high expectations of herself, as well.
“I don’t like excuses. There’s no reason for excuses. I can sit here and make excuses all day. What am I doing to help these students and this community, from the moment they get here at 7:30 until 1:54? That’s what I can control.”