OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Fla. — An elementary school principal in Okeechobee County was in the running to be this year's Florida Principal of the Year.
Jenni Ellis from Everglades Elementary School was one of three finalists, and the honor is bringing her career full circle.
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"This was it. This was Mrs. Rouks’ classroom," Ellis said while looking around her old first grade classroom at Everglades Elementary School. "It felt so much bigger when I was a kid."
But now Ellis is all grown up, and in charge.
"I almost can't put to words what it means to me to be here," Ellis said.
A walk down the halls is truly a walk down memory lane for now Principal Ellis, leading Everglades Elementary School, where she was once a student.
Ellis didn't start out as an educator. But when she stepped into the classroom, she was hooked.
"It just clicked," Ellis said. "Sometimes, something just feels right. And within days and weeks I knew I was in the right place doing the right thing."
Fast forward 11 years, Ellis is now one of three finalists for Florida's Principal of the Year, which she said is a credit to the staff and students on campus.
"When I came to Everglades in 2017, we were a bottom-300 school," Ellis said. "We were on extended day and, quite honestly, the data wasn't good. And the fact that this school has transformed in five years into the highest-performing school in our district — we earned a school grade of a B last year — in spite of the obstacles that we have faced, speaks volumes about the people who come here every day."
Anna Plummer is a classmate now turned colleague at Everglades Elementary School.
"We have walked these same halls. We have experienced many of the same things as these children have," Plummer said. "Same playground, same cafeteria set up. So we are able to relate to the children very easily."
Two friends now guiding children at the place that made them who they are today.
"Just to see it all come together has been one of the greatest joys of my life and something I'm very proud of," Ellis said.
So while some things have changed over the years, Ellis hopes the students see that homegrown Okeechobee heart that's stayed the same.
"I like to hope that it shows them that the sky is the limit, that they can do anything that they want to do with their lives," Ellis said.
Ellis' mom also taught at the school, along with Plummer's mom.
The Florida Department of Education announced on May 23 that Carolyn Davis, the principal of Rutledge H. Pearson Elementary School in Duval County, is the 2022 Florida Principal of the Year.
Ellis, along with Amy Archer, principal of Garden Elementary School in Sarasota County, were finalists for the honor.