Interlachen High School principal Thomas Bolling was one of six Florida principals who received the Florida TaxWatch’s third-annual Principal Leadership Award this year.
Bolling originally received the award in Orlando on Sept. 24, including a trophy and $5,000. Florida TaxWatch, a research institute that studies the use of taxpayer dollars, held a second ceremony Tuesday at his high school for the community to celebrate.
“What we want to do is let the community know that these teachers, these students, these schools are accomplishing something great,” said Morgan McCord, Florida TaxWatch director of communications.
The six-year Interlachen principal, who was born and raised in Putnam County, has decades of experience in the school system at multiple positions, but he credits the award to the work of his teachers and students.
“I didn’t look at it as an individual award,” Bolling said. “I looked at it as a school award. I haven’t taught anyone anything in years, but I do have really high expectations for our teachers and students, and they are rising to that challenge.”
The challenge has been daunting.
Florida TaxWatch partners with Florida State University’s Learning Systems Institute to evaluate Florida Department of Education data. McCord said it looks at schools which have with high percentages of students with disabilities and ESE students, or schools with high percentages of students on free or reduced lunch, for its award.
To be considered for it, a school had to be in the upper-quartile for both achievement and risk.
Interlachen is both.
Mark LaVenia, who is research faculty at the learning systems institute, said Interlachen High School has a high percentage of students with disabilities and a free and reduced lunch rate around 70 percent.
Yet, said LaVenia, Interlachen scored in the 78th percentile for achievement out of the 750 Florida high schools considered.
“The school had high consistency across all of those measures,” LaVenia said.
Many credited Bolling, who has worked as a teacher, a guidance counselor and an associate principal, for Interlachen’s improvements.
Courtney Riley, a 17-year-old Interlachen senior who spoke at the ceremony, said Bolling always keep his office door open to students and greets them in the hallways. He has also helped her find advisers for clubs.
Assistant Principal Sharon Spell said it was nice that a small, rural school was getting recognition for using the money it has to help increase students’ learning goals.
“As a team, we pull together and do the best with what we have with the support of administration,” Spell said.
Chair of the school board and Interlachen High School representative, Kathy Jorgensen, said the teachers and staff at Interlachen are great, but Bolling is the one who ties everything together.
The 30-year community member and third-term school board member said Bolling is the best thing that has happened to the community and the high school, calling him a role model for students.
“He went to school in Putnam County and made something of himself,” Jorgensen said. “We’re the poorest county in the state. Our graduation rate is not something to brag about. Yet he has managed to go through the system as a black man and become very successful.”
Florida TaxWatch wants to close the achievement gap and improve student performance by eventually studying the leadership of its award winners. McCord said it wants to find out what makes an effective principal, what makes a principal great and what makes a principal special.
A 39-year teacher with five years at Interlachen said the administration is supportive, gives teachers the freedom they need to teach and encourages them.
“There’s a reason I’m staying here,” Deborah Bishop said. “It’s not because I have to. I want to.”
Said Putnam County superintendent Phyllis Criswell: “It [the award] encourages all of us in Putnam County to keep doing what we’re doing.”
McCord said the sponsors who make Florida TaxWatch’s research and recognition of these principals possible are The Florida Lottery, the JM Rubin Foundation, Bright House Networks and Kyra Solutions.