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Okeechobee County principal leads elementary school where she was student

Jenni Ellis, from Everglades Elementary School, finalist for Florida's Principal of the Year
Principal Jenni Ellis of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County speaks to WPTV on April 27, 2022 (1).jpg
Posted at 2:24 PM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 17:55:41-04

OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Fla. — An elementary school principal in Okeechobee County is in the running to be this year's Florida Principal of the Year.

Jenni Ellis from Everglades Elementary School is 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."

Principal Jenni Ellis looks at her old first grade classroom at Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County on April 27, 2022.jpg
Principal Jenni Ellis looks at her old first grade classroom at Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County on April 27, 2022.

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.

Principal Jenni Ellis looks at her old yearbook from Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County on April 27, 2022.jpg
Principal Jenni Ellis looks at her old yearbook from Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County on April 27, 2022.

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."

Principal Jenni Ellis of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County speaks to WPTV on April 27, 2022.jpg
Principal Jenni Ellis of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County speaks to WPTV on April 27, 2022.

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."

Agriculture paraprofessional Anna Plummer of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County on April 27, 2022.jpg
Agriculture paraprofessional Anna Plummer of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County on April 27, 2022.

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.

Principal Jenni Ellis and agriculture paraprofessional Anna Plummer of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County hug on April 27, 2022.jpg
Principal Jenni Ellis and agriculture paraprofessional Anna Plummer of Everglades Elementary School in Okeechobee County hug on April 27, 2022.

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.

WPTV will let you know once the state announces who wins Florida's Principal of the Year.