Melissa Musselwhite, the director of student support programs and services, often begins her day around 6 a.m., and wraps it up around 7 p.m.
But those are on days when there’s not some sort of crisis going on, because in her role in Pasco County Schools, she’s on the front-end of dealing with crises.
During the midst of COVID-19, for instance, she’s been immersed in Pasco County Schools’ efforts to deal with the disruptive virus.
Beyond that, she leads a department that has roughly 400 employees.
Her performance recently led to her recognition as Pasco County Schools’ District Administrator of the Year.
She received word of the honor last month during a visit by the district’s “Surprise Patrol” made up of Superintendent Kurt Browning, Pasco School Board members and Stacey Capogrosso, the executive director of the Pasco Education Foundation.
The nomination submitted on Musselwhite’s behalf, reads in part: “Melissa has been the face of the COVID response for our district. She has been professional, thorough and endlessly patient. Melissa leads a large department that has continued to move forward in spite of her being tasked with all things COVID.
“Melissa has been unwavering in her dedication to this school district,” the nomination adds.
It also notes her exceptional efforts in coordinating testing sites and vaccine clinics, while leading her department.
The nomination also lists other attributes, including “leadership, positivity, dedication, kindness, decision-making skills, optimism and (a) constant effort to support every single person around her.”
Not only has the administrator carried the district through challenging times, the nomination said, “she has modeled for us all what it means to be the calm in the storm and the thoughtful leader everyone needs during such intense times.”
Musselwhite is gratified by the honor, but is quick to point out that any accolades she receives are a reflection of the dedicated work of the employees in the department she leads.
“I couldn’t do this job without them,” she said. “I feel like I’m kind of the conductor of keeping the work moving.”
Her responsibilities are extensive.
She describes her department as a four-legged stool that includes special programs; school services (including school nurse, school psychologists and school counseling); state and federal programs; and, compliance and discipline.
Being valued and valuing others
Besides the support she receives from her staff, Musselwhite also credits the assistant superintendents and the superintendent for giving her the freedom to do her job.
“They have such respect for me and really value my decision-making and my input, that I feel blessed to have that, as a part of my work,” she said.
“They give me autonomy because they trust that we’re going to do what’s right.
“They allowed us to work collaboratively with the community, like the department of health, different agencies.
“They also allow that flexibility and for us to have a voice.
“I think that’s what makes me energetic. I feel like the department is valued in our system and that we continue to have the ability to make a difference for kids in so many aspects in our district,” she said.
“I’m allowed to disagree. We can have a healthy debate,” she said, adding she hasn’t always been in a position where it felt safe to do that.
She wants her staff to feel equally empowered.
“I don’t want them (staff) to agree with me because I don’t know everything. So, I want to pushback. I want you to tell me you think this should look differently,” she said.
As a leader, she said, she tries to make sure “that people feel that they’re a part of, and valued in, what we’re doing.”
She said she leads a staff that plays an invaluable role in the district.
“The work we do every day to support children — whether it’s with their health needs, whether it’s because they’re English language learners, whether it’s because parents have concerns about the services; or, it’s discipline — everybody works collectively for the same purpose of making sure that students receive a great education here in Pasco,” Musselwhite said
Her profile, she acknowledged, has been raised through her role during COVID.
“I have been the lead communicator of that. I am probably more forward-facing than I had been in previous years. I’ve been communicating the good and the bad, for families, for staff, for the community,” she said.
No doubt, COVID’s impacts have been widespread.
“It’s been tough,” the district administrator said. “You can definitely see the stressors on the families. People lost jobs. Some of them lost a family member or multiple family members, or a combination of those.”
A career path with varied roles
Musselwhite began her career in Pasco County Schools in 1996 as a teacher of specific learning disabilities. She next taught children with autism, then became a behavioral specialist at the school level before becoming a district-based behavioral specialist.
Next, she became the supervisor for programs for children with autism.
After that, she was director of human resources for one year before becoming the director of exceptional student education in 2012. That department was combined with student services, she said.
“From there, it kind of morphed. We also absorbed state and federal programs; and that includes Title 1, Charter Schools, private schools, home education, grants and we had school choice for a little bit, but that has now gone to leading and learning.”
She said one of her favorite parts of her job involves attending a Special Olympics competition and watching the interaction between athletes, and seeing the joy on the faces of athletes, families and coaches.
The worst part of her job, she said, is “when we expel a kid for a year or a year and a half. It’s really hard.”
Her days are unpredictable.
“There’s no set schedule. It truly can be a 24-hour job, unfortunately. But I know that and I’m committed to that,” she said.
The state has implemented a plan called Fortify Florida, which means calls come in whenever there’s a viable threat.
She’s one of the receivers of those calls, which also go to law enforcement and the school.
“If it’s something we need to respond to, we get up and respond to it,” she said.
“Sadly, if there’s a student that passes away or an employee, and we get notified in the night, we will work on setting up the crisis team for the morning.
“Regularly, I’m either up at 5 a.m. working on things, or I’m up at midnight because there’s a missing student.
“There’s not a day I don’t take a call before I leave the house — I’m on the phone in the car,” she said.
Despite that busy schedule, though, Musselwhite said she prioritizes time with her two sons, 15-year-old Landon and 13-year-old Nolan, who attend district schools.
She also prizes the close relationships she shares with her sister Astrid Willard, with her twin brother Scott Eaton, and with a group of close-knit friends.
Musselwhite understands the impact that educators can have on others.
She still recalls the kindness of her music teacher, Miss Jewel, at Town ‘N Country Elementary School, and the support she received from her drama teacher, Miss Gaudian, at Leto High School.
“The two of them, forever, made me know what a difference teachers could make,” Musselwhite said.
Published December 22, 2021