She’s been called “tough but loving,” “the student whisperer” and the “data diva,” and now everyone can call Sharon Waite something else: Hillsborough County Principal of the Year.
Waite leads Lockhart Elementary Magnet, a science-focused school in East Tampa. She was both shocked and humbled to learn she had been nominated to represent Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) in the state principal of the year competition, especially since she is in just her third year as a principal.
It’s not how long she has been in the role, but rather how much has been accomplished at Lockhart during that time. Under her leadership, both student performance and positive climate have soared. The school finished one point from earned a B grade last year, with a 123-point jump on the state’s grading formula after being designated a “turnaround school” by the state.
There are multiple reasons for Lockhart’s turnaround.
“I set high expectations and hold true to the belief that all students can learn,” Waite said. “This belief has caused student achievement to increase and teacher turnover to decrease. Lockhart is a school where both students and teachers thrive daily.”
Increasing performance relied heavily on the use of performance data, and the faculty unanimously agreed in the 2016 TELL survey that “school leadership facilitates using data to improve student learning.” Further, 100 percent of teachers agreed they were held to high professional standards and were encouraged to reflect on their own practice. Staff also thrive in a culture of mutual trust and respect, with 100 percent of teachers in agreement.
Kim Huff, the district’s director of leadership development, said Waite motivates and inspires her teachers.
“She holds them accountable yet recognizes the impact they have on Lockhart’s students,” she said. “She’s brought her staff to tears through her stories of perseverance. Through symbols and messages she inspires them to give their very best.”
Waite is from England and began her teaching career in London from 1989-2000 before coming to the United States in 2000. After three years in Atlanta Public Schools she moved to Tampa to accept a fourth-grade teaching position at Lockhart. She did that for two school years before becoming the writing resource teacher at Potter Elementary. That’s where she met Tracye Brown, the reason she is a principal today.
Waite said Brown – now an Assistant Superintendent in Hillsborough County Public Schools – encouraged her to pursue school leadership.
“I wanted to be like her and impact a whole school,” Waite said. “She was the best principal I’ve ever worked with.”
After earning her master’s degree, Waite became an assistant principal, first at Potter and then at nearby James Elementary. She came to Lockhart in 2015 and made culture building an immediate priority.
“In my opinion, no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship,” she said.
In her letter of support for Waite’s selection, Clair-Mel Elementary Principal Gloria Waite (no relation) described the incredible culture she observed while visiting Lockhart in her previous role as a principal coach.
“You could sense the love she has for each of her students,” she said. “She calls her students by name. She discusses their goals with them and knows how to motivate them.”
In addition to all the other demands of principals, Waite was among the leaders responsible for a storm shelter in September when Lockhart opened its doors during Hurricane Irma.
“It did not surprise me that when Hurricane Irma threatened our state, many of our families and community members sought refuge at Lockhart, as it is truly a place where people know they are safe and will be cared for,” she said. “It was a great example of how a school community can come together to work to help the community during a time of great need.”
While that was challenging on its own, the fire that destroyed Lee Elementary Magnet School led to major adjustments for Waite and her team as Lockhart made room for the “famiLEE,” a process that had to be completed in less than a week.
Many of her staff members helped make that happen, so it seems fitting that both the school’s head custodian (Leonard Snead) and lead teacher (Meredith Mullen) are finalists for district Excellence in Education Awards that will be announced tonight.
Waite, meanwhile, will learn Feb. 9 if she is selected as Florida’s Principal of the Year.
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