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Leaders chosen for 3 new schools

The School Board picks three veterans as the principals: Debbie Rodgers, Kathy Flanagan and Sandra Williams.

By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002


Three new schools, three new principals, one common motivation.

"I love new challenges," said Debbie Rodgers, who will be the principal of Liberty Middle School in Tampa Palms when it opens in August.

That drive to create an educational culture out of what is now a construction site is shared by Kathy Flanagan, who will open Martinez Middle School in Lutz, and Sandra Williams, the incoming principal at Farnell Middle School in the Eagles.

The three longtime educators were appointed Tuesday to their new posts by the Hillsborough County School Board. Although they won't take their new jobs until March 1, each has hit the ground running.

Kathy Flanagan, principal of Walker Middle School since 1999, is a Pittsburgh native (and avid Steelers fan) and in her 26th year with the district. Flanagan was a special education teacher until 1986, when she became an assistant principal at Eisenhower Middle School.

From an early age, Flanagan knew she wanted to be an educator.

"The other night I called my mom to tell her the news (of the new job) and she said, "I can remember when you were a kid you were always playing school,' " Flanagan said. "It was always a dream, and it all came true."

Flanagan said one of her goals at Martinez will be creating "the same positive atmosphere we have here at Walker where kids excel, parents are always welcome and where we've built a high-caliber faculty. I think if we can get those ingredients it will be an easy start."

Because the new school is just up the road from her current one, 579 Walker students will move with her to Martinez. "When people ask me how many kids I have, I say 1,625," Flanagan said. "Some people say you shouldn't take ownership, but I love them."

Some accomplishments that helped Flanagan win her new post include taking Walker from a C grade to an A and building daily attendance up to 96 percent. "But in all honesty, it was truly a team effort," Flanagan said. "I've got a fabulous faculty, great students and the parents behind me."

As she closes in on three decades in education, Flanagan said she has found the perfect remedy to professional stress. "When there are days when I'm ready to just scream, I do lunch duty and I'm around the kids and I can say, "Okay, this is why I'm here.' It's the coolest thing."

Growing up, Debbie Rodgers was the classic military brat. She was the daughter of an Air Force officer, and her family was almost constantly relocating. "I think that being raised in the military and being moved every couple of years is one reason why I've always liked new challenges," Rodgers said. "I will tell you, it shaped who I am today because it forces you to meet new people."

Rodgers finally settled in one place in 1983 when she became a teacher at Dale Mabry Elementary. Her first administrative job came in 1996 when she was appointed assistant principal at Buchanan Middle School. She's been principal at Greco Middle School since February 2000 and will take over as principal at Liberty Middle School in March.

As with Flanagan, Rodgers' decision to become a teacher and principal almost seems preordained.

"I'm a fourth-generation educator," Rodgers said. "I grew up listening to my grandmother tell stories about her sixth-grade class."

But it wasn't always easy. In the fifth-grade, having bounced from school to school, Rodgers was near failing when her new teacher took an interest in her. "I went from being a D to F students to straight A's to graduating seventh in my high school class, then was valedictorian in my college class."

Now, Rodgers endeavors to inspire her students in the same way. She helped guide Greco from C school status to an A. And last year the school was a finalist for the Hillsborough Education Foundation Eddie award for perseverance.

"I'm very child-centered, very community-centered," Rodgers said. "I practice the philosophy that I treat all children like my own, and that's something I instill in my faculty."

Rodgers knows it will take about three years to build up a school identity at Liberty, but she said she relishes the challenge. "What an opportunity it is to build a school from the ground up, knowing what excellence is," said Rodgers, who has been heavily involved with the Blue Ribbon Schools program on the state and national levels. Tampa native Sandra Williams grew up at a time when career possibilities for women weren't what they are today.

"During the time I came up, it was basically teaching or nursing," said Williams, who is leaving Franklin Middle School for Farnell Middle School. "Girls today are thinking about being physicians or lawyers or accountants."

Growing up, Williams befriended a neighbor child on her block who was mentally handicapped. "That was one reason why I concentrated in the mental retardation area," she said.

Williams joined the school district in 1976 as a special education teacher at LaVoy Exceptional Center. In 1986, she got her first administrative job as principal of Manhattan Exceptional Center. She's been principal at Franklin Middle since 1998.

Williams said she is eager to get Farnell off the ground. "I will tell you, a brand new school gives you a wealth of opportunity, a wealth of challenges, to be the one to shape and form an educational institution," she said. "What you make it is going to reflect you."

At Franklin, that reflection was mostly glowing. In three years, she helped the school raise its state ranking from a D to a C. "We made academic gains in both reading and mathematics, and we had more concentration on reading, which has been a major emphasis," Williams said. "Also, we worked at trying to get more parents involved in their students' education."

Parents are key to a school's success, Williams said. "The first challenge is probably going to be building and maintaining a positive relationship with the parents in my community," she said. "Because we're going to have to work together to make this school successful."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 226-3464 or at mabe@sptimes.com.

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