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Schools choose ’turnaround principal’ from Jackson County

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times

The Franklin County Schools have turned to a seasoned professional from Jackson County, with an impressive record of turning around struggling schools, to be the new principal of the Franklin County Schools.

With a confident consensus that has all too often been absent with principal hires, the school board Monday night voted unanimously to hire 54-year-old Laurence Pender to succeed Michael Sneed as principal of the kindergarten through 12th grade Franklin County Schools.

In approving the hire, the school board dug deep into the district’s pockets, offering a salary package that sets Pender’s salary at $95,000, about $4,500 less than what is paid the superintendent.

In addition, the school board stipulated Pender will receive a $20,000 bonus if he improves the school grade to an A next year, and $15,000 if he brings it up to a B.

“A principal with experience, and a strong track record of getting schools where they need to be, is what this guy’s going to be for us,” said School Board Chair Stacy Kirvin. “I’m very excited, everybody’s excited, that we have this man who has this experience. He’s looked at our data and he assured us he’s up to the challenge.”

In filling the position, the school board had moved steadily to raise the bar after Superintendent Traci Yoder decided in the spring not to recommend Sneed be rehired for the 2020-21 school year.

In presenting the motion to advertise for the position, the board split 3-2 to approve her recommendation that a new principal have at least five years’ experience in that top job, in contrast to setting the qualifications at at least three years’ experience as an assistant principal.

The board discussed the matter in detail last month, with members raising pros and cons to that stipulation, and in the end, the vote in favor by board members Pam Marshall, George Thompson and Kirvin carried the day.

“We decided we wanted to go in a different direction, and to look for a turnaround principal,” said Kirvin.

He said the district turned to the Florida Department of Education’s bureau of school improvement, and secured a list of possible candidates that Karen Peddie, the district’s human resource director, could go over.

As it turned out they attracted Pender, whose track record for turnaround had drawn the attention of Florida state education officials, including Jeff Sewell, FDOE’s executive director for school improvement, who is listed on Pender’s resume as a reference.

“The interview went very well. He has the magic touch,” Peddie told the school board Monday, just prior to the vote.

That magic includes Pender being named the Jackson County school district’s Principal of the Year in January, in part for having taken Grand Ridge School, a Title 1 combined elementary and middle school, with about 600 students and 38 teachers, to an A school after two consecutive C years.

A 1983 graduate of Marianna High School, who freely admits he struggled at times in school, Pender went on to earn an associate degree four years later from Chipola College, and then four years after that, received a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Florida State.

“I know what it’s like to be ashamed to ask questions. I know what it’s like to be embarrassed,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

After college, Pender worked for a while, driving a boat, doing farm work, and before he plunged into teaching in Jackson County.

Pender taught social studies at Cottondale High School for seven years, from 1996 to 2003, and it was during those years he earned a masters in social science education and educational leadership from Troy University, completing it in Dec. 1999.

In 2003, he assumed administrative duties as assistant principal at Graceville High School, a combined middle and high school, and beginning in 2004, he began a 16-year long stint as a principal within the Jackson County School District.

It was during those years that he brought the graduation rate at Graceville and Sneads high schools into an average in the high 80s to low 90s percentile,

As impressive as that seems, his success at raising the letters grades of the schools under his direction is striking, including turning around the fortunes of Graceville Elementary from a D to a B, and then up to an A. He took Sneads from a C to an A, and he helped lift Cottondale from a C to a B school.

“I know the Franklin County School’s struggled,” he said. “I like to fix things. I’m in this business to save children.”

Because of the rapid events of the hire, Pender has decided he’ll be living out of an RV when he starts July 1, and commuting back the 90 miles to Jackson County on weekends.

His wife is entering her 30th year as a teacher in Jackson County, his eldest son is starting school at Chipola College and his youngest son is in the eighth grade, not to mention an elderly father who lives nearby.

“This all happened so fast, I couldn’t just uproot them,” he said. “We have a camper we lived in three months after the storm. Right now it’s the easiest thing for me to do.

“This is totally taking me out of my element,” Pender said. “For right now it’s what I have to do.”

In his application, Pender outlined the elements he sees as fundamental to the educational process, beginning with a quote from a mentor, who said “I am the voice of the student that has no voice and the advocate for the parent that does not know how to advocate.”

Describing himself as a “servant leader,” Pender said his major goal is to provide a safe education for all my students, and to create “an atmosphere of learning where teachers can teach, and students can achieve their full potential.

“I want my teachers to want to teach and for my students to want to learn,” he said. “Most of all, I am persistent in my belief that school will be a safe place, where parents want their children to be.

“There are many elements that are fundamental to the educational process. First, every student deserves a good foundation. This begins with Kindergarten and continues to grow as children progress,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, not all students get a good foundation in Kindergarten. Some slip through and struggle on their way. As principal, I am driven to seek out alternatives to bolstering each student's needs.

“Most people that drop out of school didn't start struggling their last years in high school, they started much earlier. It may have been third, fifth, or even eighth grade when this started,” Pender wrote. “I feel it my job to find out what my students need and to get these at-risk students the attention they deserve.

“In contrast, another key focus is creating a challenging atmosphere for those students with no barriers,” he wrote. “When I meet new students, my first question is "What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I make it my job to do everything within my power to help that child get what he or she needs to be successful. When a child leaves my school, I want them to be ready for whatever their lives hold.”

On the subject of classroom behavior, Pender wrote that “behavior is paramount to any school or person's success. More often than not, your behavior determines your path and ultimately your destination. As far as school is concerned, I lead by example.

“I will never ask anyone to do something that I would not do myself. Regardless of what kind of day I have had, I enter the office and every classroom with a smile,” he wrote. “I look for and reward positive behavior every day. I have found smiles to be contagious. I also find it very hard to respect disrespectful people.

“My number one rule is, ‘If I can't do it, you can't do it.’ That goes for students and teachers as well,” Pender wrote. “I expect teachers to teach and students to learn. I will support my teachers, but I will also support my students and their parents. I regularly go into all rooms as many times as I can every day. I have found that if they do not know when I am coming but that I will be coming, it works very well and often stops most problems before they occur.

“Teachers and students function under an intense amount of stress. If I can stop a situation before it occurs, there usually is no disruption,” he wrote. “I ask all my teachers at every school, to please let me know when they think something is about to happen. I also ask that they please call me before they back themselves and a student Into a corner. If I can fix the situation, there is usually no bad behavior.”