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    Assistant rises to principal at Ridgecrest

    Ridgecrest Elementary's assistant principal, Donna Benkert, will take over leadership of the school Jan. 6.

    By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 4, 2002

    LARGO -- It was a shock to most at Ridgecrest Elementary School, when they found out that their principal of just more than a year was leaving. But few parents and staffers were surprised when they found out who was replacing him.

    Pending board approval on Tuesday, assistant principal Donna Benkert, the school's magnet coordinator for the Center for Gifted Studies, will replace principal Bob Poth. The change takes effect Jan. 6.

    "We were hoping and expecting," PTA president Kay Im said. "We're all in support of her as a school and as staff."

    The school was on a "roller coaster" when they first learned of Poth's transfer to the new Doug Jamerson Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Im said.

    In his short time at Ridgecrest, Poth had earned respect for his warmth and guidance. But Benkert, 52, who is serving her seventh year at Ridgecrest, also proved her leadership skills in numerous ways.

    When former principal Anne Stuckey had health problems, Benkert took over for half a school year. In addition to the principal's duties, she continued her roles as both assistant principal and magnet coordinator, proving to herself and her staff that she could be a leader.

    "She not only has knowledge of the magnet program, but she understands and knows our general population," said first-grade teacher Dianne Bosker.

    Benkert also took charge six months ago by restraining a 48-pound bullterrier mix after the dog dug her way onto school property and terrorized students.

    Like Poth, Benkert has a fan club. Thursday afternoon, a table in her office was overflowing with flower arrangements and balloons.

    "I've been on cloud nine, all the well wishes and congratulations and relief and excitement about being able to take the school into the choice process." One of her biggest fans is Poth.

    "I think it's one of the best decisions that the county has made," said Poth, who attributed much of his success to Benkert because she was competent in both the school's magnet and regular education programs.

    They shared a vision for Ridgecrest's future; Benkert said she plans to continue several initiatives they worked for together, such as a new Spanish program for all grades and gifted math program.

    Poth said she'll have no problem moving forward with Ridgecrest's goals.

    "She's more than capable. She will probably take it to greater heights," Poth said.

    But it's not just her leadership skills that have earned her respect.

    "She's an administrator and wears that hat, but she's also a friend when she's needed," Bosker said.

    Benkert, who made $55,549 for her 10-month position, will make $73,332 as principal, a 12-month position.

    She earned her bachelor's degree at Florida State University, where she studied biology and chemistry. She received her master's degree in guidance and counseling from the University of South Florida.

    At one time, she had aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. But she changed her mind when she worked for a veterinarian because she had a habit of passing out during surgeries.

    She's still an animal lover and has a miniature poodle named Frank, a beagle-basset hound mix named Patsy and a Himalayan cat named Cuddles.

    Benkert began her district career 28 years ago as a science teacher at Dixie Hollins High School. She also taught science at Meadowlawn Middle, before heading to Largo Middle in 1980 to implement the gifted program. She was a guidance counselor at Oak Grove Middle and served for two years as a staffing specialist for special education, where she worked with parents, teachers and administrators. She returned to guidance counseling at Belleair and Gulf Beaches elementaries because she missed working with children and came to Ridgecrest in 1996.

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