Wiregrass Ranch High School Principal Robyn White was just 13 when she decided her path in life.
“The only question I had, honestly, was whether I wanted to teach music or math,” said White, who went on to teach mathematics at the middle and high school levels, before stepping into school administration.
Next month, on March 13, White will mark her 15th anniversary at Wiregrass Ranch High, at 2909 Mansfield Blvd., in Wesley Chapel.
The educator joined the school as an assistant principal, under the direction of Ray Bonti, the school’s first principal. Later, she was promoted to the school’s top post, to replace Bonti when he ascended to become an assistant superintendent for Pasco County Schools.
White said Bonti was one of the most important mentors in her career. He gave her a chance, she said, to learn about all aspects of school administration before she took the helm at Wiregrass Ranch.
Bonti, now executive director of the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators, said White excelled, and was his logical replacement.
“Robyn is one of the smartest administrators that I’ve worked with over my almost 30 years working in Pasco County Schools,” Bonti said. “Not only was she one of the smartest that I’ve worked with — she was a tireless worker. She put 100% effort into it.”
She also provides sound guidance, Bonti added.
“I learned a lot from her. A lot of people learned a lot from her. She mentored many teachers. She mentored many students,” Bonti said.
Over the years, Wiregrass Ranch High has developed a reputation for excellence, and during the 2019-2020 school year, White was selected as high school principal of the year by the Pasco County Council PTA.
Denise Nicholas, president of the council at the time, said White is known for running a tight ship, and for welcoming student ideas.
“She has an open-door policy for her students,” Nicholas said.
White listens, she said.
“The number of activities and groups for students, with whatever different interests — if they have a plan and they have a sponsor, and it makes sense, she absolutely will support that.
“There is a tremendous number of clubs, for every different interest, which is phenomenal,” Nicholas said.
Bonti said that White “has always maintained that really good balance of setting high expectations and creating a culture that (makes) people want to be there.”
She didn’t set out to be a principal
When White was beginning her career, her only ambition was to teach.
“I just remember being in awe of teachers, and what they did and what they taught me,” White said, noting she was particularly influenced by Marita Noe and Shirley Holm, two of her high school math teachers.
White knew she had a knack for helping her friends and other students learn.
At one point, her mom recognized her math skills and suggested she pursue a career in accounting.
But, White didn’t want to sit behind a desk, she wanted to be personally involved in helping others.
So, after graduating from the University of West Florida, in Pensacola, White landed her first job, teaching mathematics at Dunedin Highland Middle School in Pinellas County.
After that, she worked four years in a dropout prevention program, before returning to the classroom to teach sixth-grade mathematics.
Her next teaching stop was at Dunedin High School.
“I loved being a part of the classroom,” White said.
It never occurred to her to pursue a job in administration.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that I would have been a principal of a school. I wouldn’t have even given it a consideration,” she said.
But, gentle nudging from Dr. Mildred Reed, her principal at Dunedin High School, changed that.
White was very involved at Dunedin High. Besides teaching, she was the athletic director, she sponsored multiple clubs and she chaired a committee involving small learning communities.
Reed came to her and said: “I don’t understand. You do all of this and don’t get any pay for it, Why wouldn’t you go back to school and consider getting into administration?”
White went on: “I really hadn’t thought of it, to be very honest. I loved being in the classroom.”
But Reed had planted a seed.
White began taking a class here and there, thinking perhaps someday she might explore an administrative role. After all, she already had a master’s degree and would just need certification.
When an assistant principal retired, White became an acting assistant principal — allowing her the chance to give it a try.
“I did that for a semester, thinking that position would be open the following year and it would be a nice, easy transition,” White said.
It didn’t play out that way.
“That was the year that Pinellas County cut 23 assistant principals, so, I went back to the classroom,” she said.
That didn’t bother her, because she loved teaching.
But because she had served as an acting assistant principal, she found herself being called upon repeatedly to fill in when another assistant principal was out.
“That got a little bit old,” White said, so she decided to apply in Pasco County, which was advertising for administrators.
Her first interview was for a job at Zephyrhills High, which she didn’t get.
Her next interview was for a job at Wesley Chapel High, which she landed.
“I’ll never forget the day I got the call. It was a Friday afternoon,” she said.
She was at a conference wrestling meet.
“I thought, ‘My goodness, how am I going to tell these kids that I’m leaving?
“I can just remember, going back and sitting up in the bleachers and literally putting up a newspaper in front of my face and crying.
“Mr. (Andy) Frelick (principal at Wesley Chapel) was very kind. He allowed (me) to have some flex days in finishing up at Dunedin High School, because I was involved in so much.”
She went to work at Wesley Chapel High on Jan. 31, 2005, but her stay there was short-lived.
Wiregrass Ranch High was opening and students from Wesley Chapel were being reassigned to that school. White’s job at Wesley Chapel High was cut.
She joined Bonti’s staff on March 13, 2006.
When the new high school opened, it had a total of 700 ninth- and 10th-graders, White said, and it operated in portables behind Weightman Middle School. Wiregrass Ranch relocated to its current campus over winter break.
By its third year, the high school was operating at its 1,650-student capacity.
Its enrollment has swelled through the years, causing the school to add portables, and for two years operated on a 10-period day — to limit the number of students on campus at one time.
Its enrollment also has been reduced with boundary shifts — which were adamantly opposed by parents and students, alike.
Now, the enrollment stands at 2,078 — but the campus feels more spacious this year because about 800 students have opted to learn remotely due to concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19.
Lessons she’s learned through the years
Besides being an educator, White has been a learner, too.
As a teacher intern, her supervising teacher gave her two pieces of advice.
“Piece No. 1: Stay out of the teachers’ lounge because that’s where negativity breeds.
“And, Piece No. 2: When you don’t enjoy it anymore, get out.
“I tell people to this day: ‘If you’re not enjoying it, why are you staying?’”
She also learned how to manage her emotions.
When she was an acting assistant principal, she said, “I remember multiple times I got very emotional and she (Dr. Reed) told me, ‘Principals don’t cry.’”
White said she has a slightly different message for the people she mentors: “I say, ‘Principals do cry, but with the door shut.’”
She thinks her years in the classroom have helped her to be a better principal.
“You need to be able to relate to what teachers are going through,” she explained.
And, as a leader of a large school, she understands the importance of teamwork.
“There’s no way that I can do this job without the team I have around me. That’s everybody from my custodial, my non-instructional staff, my teachers,” White said.
She has confidence in them.
“They’re all smart people. So, they know what’s going to work for them and what works for their kids. So, I give them the autonomy to decide how that’s going to work,” she said.
Myriad decisions must be made, but White said: “Ultimately, it’s about what’s in the best interest of the kids.”
So much has changed over the years, but students are essentially the same, the principal said.
“They just want somebody to care. They just want to know that they’re making somebody proud.”
Published February 03, 2021