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She'll shape new school, a student at a time

Her campus is unfinished and its district is booming, but principal Lisa Yost already is striving to deal with the unique problems of starting a school from scratch.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


LUTZ -- When principal Lisa Yost worked with her Parent-Teacher Association at Cannella Elementary School, they rarely discussed what projects should take priority.

"Everything was a priority," said PTA president Bennie Hilton. "It was like, 'Let's do this."'

Now, as principal of McKitrick Elementary, Yost has no PTA, no staff, no students. McKitrick, scheduled to open in August, consists of a construction project and Lisa Yost.

So Yost, who prides herself on building a unified school community, is starting one from scratch. And she's envisioning a vibrant PTA.

"She's very much in touch, not only with her teachers and students but also the parents and the community," said Wanda Dykstra, a Cannella teacher.

McKitrick's community will be as new as they come. Still under construction inside the school's zone are:

VillaRosa, with an eventual 1,000 homes, immediately north of the campus,

Cheval, with 1,150 homes, to the south and southwest,

Heritage Harbor, with 400 homes, a mile to the east,

Montreaux with 100 homes, and Stillwater, with 50, two miles west.

Zoning is in place for another 300-home subdivision east of Heritage Harbor, and more rezonings are pending.

The boom loomed over the school system so much when it outlined McKitrick's zone in November that Van Dyke Farms and Canterbury, originally proposed for McKitrick, were readily allowed to stay at their beloved Schwarzkopf.

That means Schwarzkopf is expected to open in August at 95 percent capacity. McKitrick is to open at 60 percent, with newcomers endlessly trickling in.

Yost, therefore, might have to shift children into new homerooms in mid-year when their old ones get too crowded. That can be finessed, with little discomfort to the children, she said.

"They'll go home and tell their parents: 'I got moved and I got this new teacher and I'm special,' and it's fine," she said.

Yost herself is part of the boom. She, her husband Richard and their son Matthew moved to a new house in VillaRosa in 1997. Matthew, now a fourth-grader, will shift with some 550 fellow Schwarzkopf students to McKitrick. When the school system began planning McKitrick two years later, Yost saw the principalship as a fresh challenge, and an opportunity to serve the community where she lives.

"I don't know what it'll be like jogging anymore," she said.

At 41, Yost has been preparing for this nearly all her life.

"When I was little, I used to get the chalkboard and teach my brothers and sisters," she said.

Back then, her father, Walt Sickles, was an elementary school principal in Woodbridge, Va. "I thought that was the greatest job in the world," she said.

Sickles went on to retire as Hillsborough County schools superintendent, and Sickles High School was named for him. Now Yost has a temporary office there.

She graduated from the University of Florida in 1981, and began teaching second grade at Carrollwood Elementary School. Four years later, she obtained a master's of education degree from the University of South Florida in administration and supervision. Four years after that, she was named principal of Grady Elementary School in south Tampa.

When she transferred to Cannella, Yost was open, trusting and innovative, said Dykstra, a veteran teacher who has worked for more than a dozen principals.

Yost helped Dykstra and three other teachers form a "continuous progress" unit in which 100 children, first- through third-graders, are challenged to do their best anywhere within those grade ranges. That formula lets a child have the same teacher -- in social studies, for example -- for three years.

Yost accompanied the teachers through an intensive training regimen, Dykstra said. "She really kind of went out on a limb for us."

Dykstra and PTA president Hilton describe Yost as equally plugged into every other aspect of school life.

"She has a lot of energy," Dykstra said. "She seems to know how to pace herself so she still has something to give all week long."

However big McKitrick becomes, Yost vows to get to know every child there, preferably by name. At Cannella, she definitely has achieved that with all the fifth-graders, she said, although not necessarily with the newer first-graders.

"I find that hard to believe," said Hilton. "She probably knows the names of the kindergarteners after a month."

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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