POY Finalist Group Photo

The Principal of the Year award recognizes outstanding principals who have succeeded in providing high-quality learning opportunities for students as well as demonstrating exemplary contributions to their schools and communities.

Congratulations to the 2023-24 Principal of the Year Finalists!

Rebecca WatsonRebecca Watson, Principal
East River High
A few weeks into Rebecca Watson’s first year as high school principal, Hurricane Ian flooded Riverdale Elementary. Watson opened the doors of her school to accommodate a second set of students and staff, creating “Two Rivers, One Family.” Her leadership turned a challenging situation into a positive opportunity to strengthen the culture and resiliency of her school. Watson leads by example, from doing pushups in the Red Zone on Friday night to playing UNO at lunch. She makes her employees and students feel loved and supported by participating in as many events as she can, even out of town. Watson’s schools show vast reductions in turnover and increases in measures of school climate. She pours herself into students and pushes students to succeed academically and in life.

Melanie SimmonsMelanie Simmons, Principal
Rock Lake Elementary
Simmons is known for helping struggling schools achieve their potential. She has helped move Rock Lake from a D to a B and an unofficial A in 2022-2023 by removing student barriers and building staff capacity. As an assistant principal, she also helped Ivey Lake Elementary move from an F to a B in partnership with the School Transformation Office. Simmons said that the devastation of her son’s sudden death in 2021 has been her catalyst to bring change. She is inspired when she sees her teachers grow in their teaching skills and seeing children grow in self-confidence. A major focus of her work has been building school culture and empowering teachers. She has also added fine arts and science to Rock Lake, resulting in better engagement and student performance.

Lindsey SmestadLindsey Smestad, Principal
Sadler Elementary
Lindsey Smestad is a passionate principal who has made Sadler ES a place where students and teachers enjoy being each day. A leading mentor and instructional leader in our district, Smestad builds rich school cultures and climates that support staff, include the community and helps students feel valued. Sadler is the district elementary school with the highest percentage of English Languages Learners, who hail from 20 countries and speak 8 languages. Smestad has created a safe and inclusive learning environment for students and a supportive, collaborative workplace for teachers and staff. She has led Sadler ES to its highest school grade since the Florida Standards Assessment began in 2015. Her staff is united behind her in their goal of creating lifelong learners.

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