Ocala, Florida — Pearls gracefully lay upon a charcoal suit with a pop of color sneaking out above a perfectly buttoned jacket. The papers sprinkled across the desk reveal an agenda overflowing with tasks. The room is illuminated by light that bounces off a large crystal award, which stands next to two smaller ones. As the bell screams across the loud speaker and students begin to dash throughout the hallways, she returns to her office and continues the work she has been at since the rising sun.
After 22 years of being a principal, West Port High School Principal Jayne Ellspermann’s job is only beginning. On October 7, 2014, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named Ellspermann 2015 National Principal of the Year. Out of the principals of nearly 100,000 schools from across the country, she was number one.
“Isn’t it ridiculous? It is embarrassing to have that huge thing in my office; it will cycle out in a little while along with the state one, and the one I got for being a finalist,” Ellspermann said. “I have never wanted awards; I just love being a high school principal and getting kids ready to enter into the world.”
Ellspermann graduated from the University of Georgia in 1977, then moved to Florida with her new husband. She began working in Marion County 34 years ago as a high school social studies teacher.
“My father moved around, and I went to many different schools all over and just ended up in Florida 37 years ago because of my husband,” Ellspermann said. “I kind of picked him after asking, ‘You don’t want to move around a lot do you? I don’t want to keep changing my phone number.’”
When she moved to Ocala after receiving a degree in psychology, her first job was in law enforcement.
“I worked my way through college as a police officer at UG. When I graduated I had opportunities in law enforcement, which was back in the ‘70s when women were not in the field,” Ellspermann said. “I was able to get a deputy job and it was an exciting time, within six months I was asked to be the director of planning and research. After working there for three years I found I just really wanted to work with people.”
Ellspermann knew she wanted to change fields but never imagined becoming a teacher until she accepted a job teaching social studies.
“I never even dreamed of being a teacher. I just ended up getting a job as a social studies teacher and loved it because I got to teach all of the things I loved,” Ellspermann said. “I hadn’t been teaching long when I was asked to consider doing an administrative type role.”
Even though at first she was unsure if she would enjoy working on the administrative side of education, Ellspermann found that she enjoyed it because she was still in a school and still with kids.
“I was just really fortunate; I was given a lot of opportunities. I became an elementary assistant principal, then principal, then middle school principal, and then high school for the last 11 years,” Ellspermann said. “High school is my favorite, because I love having the last touch to make sure students are ready and have everything they need to leave.”
In these years, she received her master’s from the University of Florida and learned how to incorporate research into her job.
“I think that the preparation I got at UF was exactly what I needed to be successful. What I really appreciate about the education I received was that it was grounded in theory and research, so as education has evolved over the last ‘30-something years,’ I have continued to learn and be able to move forward,” Ellspermann said. “A really good education is when the learning never stops.”
It was this idea that allowed Ellspermann to not only grow as a principal, but also understand the effect that her job could have on the 2,600 students that attend West Port High School.
“It is really exciting to have an opportunity to be the last institution that makes a difference in a person’s life, and that’s what we do in high school,” Ellspermann said. “The two things I tell my students are ‘make it a great day or not, the choice is yours,’ and ‘graduation is not a destination, it is your threshold to your future.’ That is the most important part.”
Ellspermann embodies this idea and strives to be constantly improving as a leader and learning how to better help her students.
“We struggle a lot in education to show that it is not about natural ability but about hard work, any success you have is about you working hard and trying to grow, and I think Ms. Ellspermann is the epitome of that,” said Madeline Bottenhorn, a 10th-grade science teacher. “Even the day she won, the only thing I heard her say was ‘There are so many more things I want to improve.’”
This award has not only shed light on Ellspermann’s success as a principal, but also helped battle the stigma that Florida has a poor public school system.
“Florida’s education system is underrated because the citizens have too high of expectations,” Ellspermann said. “We are underrated because we don’t celebrate our success because we are always trying to be better.”
With extremely hard work and dedication during her 10 years at West Port, Ellspermann has been able to see higher FCAT scores, establish the school as an accredited college campus, and create a magnet program for the arts.
“I think this says something about the flexibility of your standing in education and something nice about the turn around that comes if you put in a lot of work,” Bottenhorn said. “It did take a long time to turn the school around but it is so cool that it could be done in one generation.”
Ellspermann’s success has not only affected the stereotype associated with Florida’s schools, but has shown current students how hard work does pay off.
“The educational leadership faculty is so very proud of Ms. Jayne Ellspermann being named National Principal of the Year,” Linda Eldridge, director of school of human development and organizational studies in education, said. “Our current graduate students sing her praises and aspire to become school leaders just like her. Her skills and success stories are an inspiration for us all.”
Ellspermann is not only a high school principal, but has also raised two daughters with her husband of 37 years, David Ellspermann, and has become a grandmother of five grandsons.
“Isn’t it funny how life takes so many turns?” Ellspermann said. “There were opportunities I could have taken to have gotten higher up, but then I would never be here. The most important thing is to be true to who you are.”
—By Michelle Clarkson—
UF Student Correspondent