Carin Hetzler-Nettles is the principal of the new Cypress Creek Middle High School and was previously principal of Wesley Chapel High, where she earned Pasco County’s Secondary Principal of the Year in 2012.
We spoke with Hetzler-Nettles during staff training week at Cypress Creek, located off Old Pasco Rd. As the entire staff worked together to create the culture of the new school (which is set to open to students on Pasco’s first day of classes for the 2017-18 school year, on Monday, August 14), Hetzler-Nettles reflected on all the work that’s being done to get the school ready for its first class of students. Here are some highlights from that conversation:
Neighborhood News: How different is this process of opening a new school, compared with the typical summer routine at other county middle and high schools?
Carin Hetzler-Nettles: Really different! Every principal does a lot of work this time of year, but it’s very rare to have this opportunity to be side-by-side with the entire staff, building something new.
We’re setting the stage, creating our culture here. We’re setting our school-wide expectations and motto, and talking about what a Cypress Creek “Coyote” looks like.
Cypress Creek will be a pilot program for “trauma informed care,” so we had training for that. We learned about ourselves as a staff and to be mindful that everyone comes in with their own trauma (which could be something minor), and we react in different ways. When a student acts out, it’s because of something in their life, and it’s on us to figure that out, and then to build resilience, grit and perseverance. Those are life skills.
On the last day of our staff retreat (which was earlier this month), our teachers will get their schedules and find out their classrooms, which they’re so excited about. Then, as teams, they’ll head out into the community to commit random acts of kindness. We want to say “hi” to our fellow community members and tell them we’re hoping for their support.
NN: What’s your favorite thing about the campus itself?
CHN: The look of this school reminds me of a community college. It has beautiful brick paver accents. There are amazing (floor-to-ceiling) windows in the classrooms. There’s so much natural light and every classroom has a great view. We are the only high school in the county that will have a rubberized track, so we’ll be able to host some big meets. We also have a large cafeteria and an enormous band room, and the most beautiful gym floor I’ve ever seen.
We had been working out of two classrooms at Quail Hollow Elementary. To move into the new campus, we needed to have the wi-fi working, a place to sit at and something to sit on. That happened last week, so this is our home now. The trailers will go away, but we will have a district employee and construction subcontractors finishing up around campus, for probably six more months.
NN: What are you most excited about?
CHN: I am most excited about the opportunities for students. It’s so cool to have middle and high school students together. I have seen the power of kids talking to kids, and of kids showing leadership, like when eleventh grade students help ninth grade students transition. They explain, “This is why you need to do your homework,” or even say, “Let me sit with you at lunch.”
Outside of school, you don’t necessarily see that part of them all the time, but we see that kids have big hearts and truly want to help others.
We have a “Pack leader” program where, over the summer, eleventh graders will be trained in leadership and eighth graders will be trained in peer counseling. Then, those trained students will be scheduled into core classes in the lower grades.
So, an eleventh grade student might be scheduled into a ninth grade English class and they are the “Pack leader” in that class. We partner them up in one of their strong subjects to help kids in that class. They might set up a texting app to remind the class that there’s a test tomorrow, or take kids outside the class to help them, or just talk, if they had a fight with a friend, for example.
So many things divert kids’ attention, whether it’s that they don’t see the purpose of school, they’re looking for fun, or they’re making bad choices. It’s on us as educators to engage them and find what works for them. It’s different with every kid, so there are a lot of different ways to do that.
NN: How deep are your roots in Pasco County schools?
CHN: I am a product of Pasco County Schools. I graduated from Land O’ Lakes High. I started my career in 1996 as an ESE teacher at River Ridge Middle School. I spent a year in Hillsborough County but found it very different and came back to open Mitchell in 2000. I got my educational leadership certificate and became assistant principal, then became principal at Wesley Chapel High in 2009.
I’ve actually worked with people who were my teachers in high school. When I was at Mitchell, I became an administrator and one of the teachers there was a teacher I had in high school. The same thing happened when I was principal at Wesley Chapel. I was principal of a teacher who taught me.
NN: How does the size of Cypress Creek Middle High School compare to other campuses in the area?
CHN: We are starting with 650 high school students, which is very small. The next smallest high school in Pasco County is 1,100 students, so we’re about half the size of that. It’s almost unheard of.
But, our middle school has 850 students, which is pretty typical. As those middle schoolers age up, we will end up being the size of a traditional high school, so we will grow quickly. We will have about 1,500 at the high school and 900 at the middle school (in the next few years).
In about four years, we hope to have a completely separate middle school built adjacent to this school. (Right now,) Cypress Creek Middle High School is a way to relieve a booming population that is necessary at our feeder schools. We’re embracing it as a unique opportunity to create a dynamic culture.
We’re doing vertical teaming, so sixth through eleventh grade teachers in each department (math, for example) will meet every week. There will be no “they didn’t learn this in middle school.” We will have a seamless campus and curriculum. And, when that day comes when there’s a separate middle school campus, we expect that culture will bleed over into that campus, as well.
NN: What do you want your students to know as they get ready to come to Cypress Creek?
CHN: Life is full of possibilities. That’s how I approach every day. I know parents teach their kids they can do whatever they put their mind to, and that’s what’s being instilled in our school. It’s easy to be worried or concerned about having sixth through twelfth graders on the same campus and sharing buses, and it’s right to have concerns. But, we are planning for that. We already have schools with this model.
We can also look at what an amazing situation it is that a middle schooler has access to criminal justice, business, and journalism classes. If they want to take Spanish or American Sign Language, they can walk across campus and take it. They have easy access to accelerated courses. They don’t have to do it online. It’s a great opportunity and it’s very exciting to me.
It’s easy to stay comfortable. I loved working at Wesley Chapel with those kids and teachers and parents and staff, but I took a leap of faith to come here, and so did all the other staff. We are looking at the possibilities and all the doors that will open for all of these students. It’s gonna be really cool.