GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Green Cove Springs Junior High principal Jennifer Halter is one of the three finalists in the state for Florida’s 2021 Principal of the Year.It’s the farthest …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Green Cove Springs Junior High principal Jennifer Halter is one of the three finalists in the state for Florida’s 2021 Principal of the Year.
It’s the farthest she’s ever made it in the annual “competition.” Although it’s competitive by default, and more a celebration of the state’s great educators, which includes her years of time as a teacher in Clay County – a career that started as a teacher at Orange Park Junior High, which eventually led to a phenomenal tenure at GCSJH.
Halter said she owes it all to the excellent teachers and staff surrounding her.
“It’s an honor,” Halter said. “Every decision I make, though, I make with a team. My success is not just based on me. It’s everyone I learn from, the networking with other junior high administrators, the teachers in these halls, and everyone who’s ever helped me get to where I am today.”
Halter taught English at Orange Park Junior High for eight years and she’s been the principal of GCSJH for six years. Her motivation throughout her entire career, be it as a teacher or as a principal, has always been the children and making school a positive experience.
“I believe that we should provide positive learning experiences for kids, especially in public education,” Halter said. “My passion is public education. If we can make sure all kids look back fondly on their experience learning here, that will help them become lifelong learners and it helps for when they have kids.”
Halter said it’s important to establish a positive relationship between children and school because when the children grow up and have children of their own. Parents then will be more open to partnering with schools and taking education more seriously.
“It ultimately opens more doors for everybody,” she said. “If the parents didn’t have a positive experience in school, they’re less likely to come to the school or be involved with what we’re trying to do here and then, all of a sudden, the narrative of the importance of school is different. If we can change that narrative, or make it a positive one to begin with which is what I believe we’re doing here, then that can change our entire educational system. It’s why I do what I do.”
What Halter and her team at GCSJH does is clearly working as Halter is just weeks away from finding out if she is selected as the Florida 2021 Principal of the Year. There are two other, and Halter said she’s talked to each. It’s an honor to be among them, she said.
One of the things Halter said that’s been extremely helpful in helping her run GCSJH, an “A” school in the Clay County School District, is the parent organization.
“We didn’t have a parent organization here when we started,” she said. “Having it now, it’s been fabulous. We call it the Parent Volunteer Organization. They’ve helped me grow as a leader and it’s an amazing voice for the school and the parents. They talk to others, too, about what’s going on here and they truly are a part of the Green Cove Springs Junior High community.
“That work doesn’t stop within these walls. All that we do is a community effort and ... the school’s greatness is way bigger than any one person.”
Halter has the unique challenge of being a principal at a junior high, a type of school where she and her staff only see students for two years whereas high school staff sees students for four and elementary at least six.
“Knowing that we have them for two years, it makes junior high such a sweet spot in their lives,” Halter said. “There’s so much going on at this age for children. It’s an awkward age, you know, but even though it’s awkward, it’s about navigating it alongside them and letting them know we’re here for them.”
One of her favorite parts of the job is seeing where students from her school or years teaching end up in the county or district. Her children play soccer in the county, and she might run into a former student who’s now coaching children the same age as her children.
“In Clay County, the relationships go beyond just those years we see them and I think that’s because of the emphasis this district puts on making education a positive experience,” Halter said.
Junior high makes Halter’s job unique, but COVID-19 has affected it, too, just as it has for thousands of teachers around the country.
“It’s been tough, of course, but we’re still doing school at the end of the day,” Halter said. “It’s just different now. The big thing is that you have to really take the time to understand people’s comfort levels and what their individual fears are with everything going on. I lead by helping people, helping them feel noticed, helping them feel heard, and when we as educators continue to do that despite a pandemic, the children feel safer and ultimately, they’ll want to continue to be in our buildings to learn.
“I’m empowered by an amazing team around me and a district that’s always encouraging and I’m so honored to be a finalist for the year,” Halter said. “We’ll see what happens next, but I’m so excited to even be a finalist.”