New principal, new strategy

Lakewood High School’s new principal, Conneisha Garcia, said she is an out-the-box thinker, so if a student or parent presents an innovative idea, as long as it’s within policy, she wants ‘to try it because that’s how we get new thinkers, innovation in our school.’


ST. PETERSBURG — As the new principal at Lakewood High, Connisheia Garcia is determined to turn things around for the school, which has received criticism for its poor academic showings and high percentages of seniors not graduating on time.

“A lot of the pieces is just ensuring that core instruction is strong, and communication is strong,” said Garcia, who was principal at Lealman Innovation Academy for eight years. “Pushing forward by making sure we have rigorous academic work for our kiddos. Back to basics.”

Garcia recently held a meet and greet with parents on June 29, underscoring the importance of communicating the school’s goals and what “we stand for, communicating what our kids need.” She aims to provide the school’s vision, focus, and expectations.

For parents who are invested in their children’s education, the Clearwater native believes giving them opportunities to sit down and interact with school counselors, teachers and the principal is critical. Visibility, she said, is key.

‘I want to compete with every single school in our district and beyond,’ said Lakewood High School’s new principal, Connisheia Garcia. ‘When they’re doing Battle of the Books and all those different competitions, we need to be there. We need to have a robotics team at the competition. We need to provide access because we never know what our kids are capable of until we give them that opportunity.’

“You’re going to see me; you’re going to hear me; you’re going to get a response,” she said, adding that she has planned many more events involving individual meetings with students, parents, teachers and even town hall-type events.

The same expectation is incumbent on everyone who works at Lakewood, noted Garcia, a former teacher who favors a very hands-on method.

“We have a new counseling team, we have a new leadership team,” she said, “and the expectation that I have for myself is also there for everyone that I hire.”

Garcia’s team is comprised of four assistant principals; three of them are new to Lakewood.

The school has been criticized for issuing too many concordance diplomas — state-approved diplomas issued to students who did not perform well enough to earn a standard diploma — which many feel don’t serve the students when it comes to applying to colleges or searching for careers after graduation. To get the number of standard diplomas back up, Garcia believes in providing guidance, strategies and educational goals to students from the moment they attend Lakewood as freshmen.

“Every kid is going to have a different starting space based on testing,” she said, “but they have to know where they are and where they need to be. But that goes back to communication with families and students.”

She said that with strong communication and support, students are more likely to meet the mark. Garcia admits that support from parents varies in its manifestations, yet she is willing to work with everyone. If parents can’t make it to meet and greet events or conferences, Garcia is open to speaking to them on the phone or communicating with them in any way that is more feasible for their schedules.

“Everyone has the best expectations for their kids, and it may just look different on how they can support their kids,” she said, adding that even ensuring their children attend school regularly or communicating to the school that a student is going through a difficult emotional time at home is a form of support.

Under her guidance, Lealman became the highest-performing educational alternative school in the district, with its graduation rate bettering even that of some traditional high schools. It is crucial to not only open the lines of communication with students, Garcia believes, but to gain trust and respect through honesty.

“Talk to them with respect, and you gain their respect,” she said. “Let them communicate their needs. They have needs, too.”

In helping students who have moved up grades but have struggled, Garcia said it is essential to examine the students’ areas of strength and historical data.

“Does their data all along say they were having those difficulties, or was it a specific year or a specific test?” she said. “You have to dig into the root causes.”

At Lealman, Garcia personally held reading groups for students with difficulty reading and offered effective methods that helped them immensely.

“A lot of times, it’s not that they’re struggling,” she said. “They don’t know how to utilize the strategies in order to decipher what they need to do or to analyze things.”

There will be additional resources this year for incoming ninth graders, Garcia pointed out, such as “what groups they need to be in, how are they scheduled, what intervention after school, ELP.” Three counselors will be active in helping to monitor the progress of nearly 1,000 students, Garcia said, but that duty also falls on the principal, assistant principals, teachers and coaches.

“It’s a collective effort,” she said. “It’s teamwork. We have to work together.”

At the recent meet and greet with parents, Garcia addressed the graduation rate and underscored that graduation starts in the ninth grade, noting that she wants students to meet their test standards in the ninth and tenth grades, “so we’re not worried about them in the 11th and 12th grade.”

Students taking pride in Lakewood and having fun while learning is high on Garcia’s agenda.

“School is not boring for me,” she said. “High school was amazing! I remember high school was great! We had activities, we had fun, but guess what? We learned! We had some great teachers, so that is my goal, that while they’re learning, they’re also having a good time. And we’re using their voice and choice to determine what they need.”

Upcoming events

Seniors’ credits have already been pulled, and on July 13, Garcia and her staff will speak with each senior and let them know if they are missing anything.

“We will have their schedules and what they’re projected to take, and we can look at what they need,” Garcia revealed. “And we’ll also talk about the events we’ll have for the school year regarding testing.”

On Aug. 4, a freshman seminar will get underway with workshops, tie-dying seminars and walking the newbies through their schedules.

If you have any questions or concerns, please call 727- 893-2916, or email Garcia at

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