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Award-winning principal seeks 'threepeat'


When Reynolds Lane Elementary School Principal Todd Simpson heads to the playground for recess, he’s like Gulliver surrounded by a bunch of giggling Lilliputians.


He’s not tied and staked to the ground like the giant in the well-known children’s tale, but the 335 children enrolled in his school have certainly captured his heart and soul.


Towering over the kids at 6-feet, 5-inches, with a booming bass voice matching his physical stature, this University of North Florida alum could easily intimidate wee ones. But while Simpson is known as a strict disciplinarian with high expectations, his students also know he’s a nice guy who cares deeply about them.


“Although I’m a big person and I can talk extremely loud, I don’t yell or scream when I have to discipline my kids,” he said. “I don’t stand over them like a scary ogre. I tell them I’m disappointed they didn’t meet my expectations, but the next day everything’s good. They all know that tomorrow is a new day and we start fresh each morning.”


Simpson has served as a teacher and assistant principal in several Jacksonville elementary schools since graduating from UNF, but he’s spent the last four years as principal of Reynolds Lane, located in an economically disadvantaged community on Jacksonville’s Westside. During that time, the school has gone from being a C school to a B school, and then to an A school two years running, a feat never before accomplished there.


“I’m thrilled with our accomplishment, a very difficult achievement for a school like mine,” Simpson said. “More than 85 percent of our children receive free or reduced lunch and many come from single-parent households. We have worked very hard to get where we are today, and this year we’re going for a ‘threepeat,’ which would make us totally ecstatic.”


As the school’s sole administrator, Simpson said it’s his job to be the instructional leader of the school as well as the main teacher and learner.


“It’s all about learning and growing and becoming a learning practitioner. I preach to my teachers often that when we become better and we continue to learn and grow, it translates over to what we do in the classrooms and the impact we have on children,” he said.


He said having a positive impact in the lives of both teachers and students at his school is his biggest reward. It starts with providing tools for his teachers to succeed — and instilling in students an intrinsic value of lifelong learning.


“I want children to be successful. I want them to understand they don’t have to be limited by their environment at home. The potential is there in everyone. It just needs to be unearthed, and I am honored to be a part of that process.”


Simpson recently won the Council for Educational Change’s Leonard Miller Principal Leadership Award, presented annually to an outstanding Florida principal for exemplary school leadership in student achievement, parent/community involvement and school-based learning. He used the $10,000 prize as a down payment on a much-needed new car.


“The money’s wonderful, I really like my new car, but just to be recognized and thanked for the work I do with our children each day is the real prize for me,” he said.


Teachers Ann Shular and Jon Walker are among those who prize Simpson for what he brings to Reynolds Lane. “He will get down and dirty if needed to keep the school running,” Shular said. “I’ve watched him become a capable leader providing an individualized management style to meet our needs.”


“Mr. Simpson has built a positive learning community here based on teamwork and respect, and when teachers and students see him in action, they know this is someone who genuinely cares,” Walker said.


Simpson started his career teaching a ‘motley crew’ of 5th graders at Hyde Grove Elementary, but his education at UNF left him well equipped for whatever was thrown his way.


“Some people barely survive their first year of teaching because they aren’t prepared enough. I can’t say that. I didn’t go in blindsided,” he said. “UNF professors presented real-life scenarios to us and we went into the schools to experience it firsthand. We didn’t just learn theory from a book. If I had not had reality checks along the way at UNF and excellent instruction on how to apply my learning, I would not have made it that first year.”


And without his education at UNF, Simpson said he would not have become the well-spoken and influential educator he is today.


“Broken English was the mantra in the environment from which I came, but upon the urging of my pre-internship professor at UNF, I endeavored over the years to speak and write well and to critique everything I do,” Simpson said. “As a result, I know I’ve become a much better speaker, writer and educator. It all started at UNF, so I really have UNF to thank for the difference my education has made in my life.”