When Pasco County Schools opened Cypress Creek Middle High School, the challenges facing the new leader of that school weren’t the same kind faced by most principals of new schools.
For one thing, the school was the first in the Pasco school district that would be for students in sixth through 11th grade, initially, with a senior class to be added the following year.
For another, the school was pulling students from established middle and high schools — including many families who challenged the school district’s boundaries for the new school.
And, of course, there was the issue of combining middle and high school students on the same campus — with their obvious differences in the size, maturity level and academic needs.
So, when the school district was deciding on the leader for Cypress Creek Middle High, it had to be sure that whoever was in charge would be able to rise to the occasion.
“The obvious leader for this new school was Carin Hetzler-Nettles,” Tammy Berryhill, assistant superintendent of high schools for Pasco County, wrote in a letter nominating Hetzler-Nettles for Florida’s principal of the year.
Berryhill noted a number of the principal’s achievements, including her work to raise the performance at Wesley Chapel High School, which she led before being selected as the inaugural principal at Cypress Creek Middle High.
The assistant superintendent noted that Hetzler-Nettles is known for being able to help develop teachers and assistant principals for broader district roles, such as instructional coaches, assistant principals, principals, district supervisors and even one assistant superintendent.
Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning also sees Hetzler-Nettles’ strengths.
In his letter nominating her for the state honor, Browning observed: “Mrs. Hetzler-Nettles was selected as Principal of the Year from among nearly 80 school principals. Her peers nominated her, and all district administrators voted for the winner. They could not have selected a better example of an outstanding school leader. I am certain she would represent the state of Florida with distinction as the state’s Principal of the Year.”
For her part, Hetzler-Nettles said she “was very shocked, and humbled” to be named Pasco’s principal of the year, especially in light of her high regard for her peers across the district.
Hetzler-Nettles said she embraced the leadership position at Cypress Creek Middle High because it presented unique challenges from the outset.
For one thing, the district hadn’t initially intended to have middle and high school students within a single school on the campus. It had planned to build a high school and a middle school, but lack of funding changed those plans.
With pressing needs for more classroom space, the district decided to house grades six through 12 on the campus, temporarily, until the new middle school could be built.
And, instead of having separate principals for the middle and high school programs, Hetzler-Nettles was chosen to lead the entire campus, with assistant principals to support her.
The job had built-in challenges
Hetzler-Nettles described some of them, in an essay she wrote that’s included in her statewide nomination packet.
“I’m not going to lie, and say it was easy, and that all of the students zoned to attend Cypress Creek Middle High School were excited about the change.
“In fact, it was extremely difficult to get the students to buy in to the culture, community and identity we were building at Cypress Creek.
“Who could blame them? For decades, some of the communities that were rezoned to attend Cypress Creek were Wildcats or Bulls, and now they were forced to be Coyotes.
“The idea of having to leave friends who lived in a different neighborhood that was not affected by the boundary change, and attend a new school that had no familiarity, was a challenge for most students.
“It was my job to combat those fears and make the students’ transition from their previous school to Cypress Creek as smooth as possible.”
Long before the school opened, the principal began reaching out to schools that would be sending students and to parents of those students — to begin building the new community that would become Cypress Creek Middle High.
The principal said she knew many parents were worried about having sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders on the same campus as high school students.
Steps were taken to ensure that the middle school and high school students were kept separate.
At the same time, Hetzler-Nettles knew there were opportunities for high school students to develop leadership skills, and for middle school students to take advantage of academic possibilities.
For instance, middle school students could walk across campus for high school classes, and high school students could serve in ways that they could become positive role models for younger students.
“I know how awesome high school kids are. If you set high expectations for them, they will rise to the challenge,” the principal said.
Being named Pasco Schools’ principal of the year is icing on the cake for Hetzler-Nettles.
“I cherish this job and I love the work that I do, and feel that being a principal is an important role,” she said. “I see the power of good leadership — in getting kids excited about all of the possibilities that await them in life.
“I see the power in setting processes and procedures and high expectations for students, and for people who work with me and for me, and for myself,” she said.
She loves being an educator because the field is filled with people who are always striving for improvement.
“That’s a true love of mine: To think of ways that would engage kids to move something forward or make something better, and to have people rally around or come up with ideas and then to put that to work and to see it in action,” she said.
It’s not a passion that everyone shares, she added.
“People don’t always love change. But, I get very excited about, ‘How can we improve this? How can we always be striving to make things better?’
Being a principal is rewarding, but not always easy, she said.
“There’s not a day that I don’t come to work that there’s not a challenge, and it’s not always the same one,” she said.
It’s a job that requires grit and perseverance — but those are attributes that everyone needs in life, she said.
“You’ve got to have grit and perseverance, and set high expectations for yourself, in order to make it through whatever path you choose in life,” the principal said.
“You’re going to get knocked down in life. We all do and we all have.
“It’s really how you approach those challenges and roadblocks that are going to get put in front of you — as to how successful you are going to be in whatever you choose to do,” Hetzler-Nettles said.
Published December 19, 2018