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New Yankeetown principal embraces leadership role at small school

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By Sean Arnold

When Denee Hurst left for college to attend the University of Florida, she never thought she’d return to the kind of small-town setting like the one in which she was raised in Dixie County.

She did, however, as she put in more than 20 years as a teacher and educational administrator in the county.

And now Hurst is the new principal of Yankeetown School, which, with its enrollment of around 200 students, is an even smaller school than where she started.

It may not be where she imagined herself when she was a young English major, but she couldn’t be happier with her new circumstance.

“I love it here,” she said. “I was thinking Anderson Elementary, with 600 kids, is a small school. No, this is amazing.”

Hurst, 45, takes over after the resignation of former principal Jeannine Mills over the Christmas holiday break. Mills was principal at the school for a year and a half.

With that kind of recent turnover at the top, Hurst’s first major priority is restoring trust between the school’s leadership and the students and community.

“We want to let the community, kids, and parents know that we love them and we’re one team,” she said. “The kids are the center focus of everything we do and the instruction is paramount. We’re trying to change the culture a little bit back to what it used to be, and we have a great team.”

For Hurst, that means getting to know the students personally.

“They won’t give us 100 percent if they don’t think we genuinely love them,” she said. “My goal for me is to know all these kids as quickly as possible, and not just as a name and a face.

“When you go to these classrooms, you see them completely engaged and really having an ownership of the instruction, that’s what gets me excited. Even struggling kids can get excited about challenging material.”

Hurst’s background as an administrator in the Dixie County school district was focused on areas like curriculum, instruction and assessment.

“My job was organizing the district’s testing stuff, as well as overseeing the instructional pieces, which is where my heart is.”

She got her start in education as an elementary and middle school teacher at Anderson, where she especially enjoyed teaching remedial reading to seventh and eighth graders.

“I didn’t go to school to be an educator – I was an English major,” Hurst said. “And then, of course, my mom asked me what I was going to do with that. I was offered a teaching job and just fell in love with all of it.”

She moved on to become an assistant principal at Old Town Elementary, in the town she was born and raised, about 11 miles down the road from Anderson Elementary, before taking over as principal at AES and then later joining the district staff in Dixie.

Though she hadn’t given it any thought before, Hurst was encouraged to consider a path in administration as she pursued her master’s degree in educational leadership through Florida A&M University.

“There was something another district administrator saw in me that gave me confidence that, yeah, maybe this is something I need to do,” Hurst said. “And now I see it in others, so I totally get what he saw. I did that with (Chiefland Middle High School) assistant principal Danielle Rossen, where I hired her as a teacher and thought, ‘Oh, she’s administrative material.’”

Even as she found her calling as an administrator, Hurst still needed her fix as an instructor.

She worked as an adjunct professor at Florida Gateway College in Lake City, and she teaches dance classes in Chiefland while also staying involved in clubs like 4-H. The job as principal also returns her closer to the students.

Hurst said she was considering the possibility of working for a larger school district in Levy County before the Yankeetown job came open. Now she plans on remaining a fixture.

“When (Levy superintendent of schools Jeff Edison) started to describe Yankeetown School, it reminded me of Old Town Elementary and all of that nostalgia came with it and I was like, ‘I’m in!’

“After I got here, I told him you can forget I’m down here and I’ll just stay here forever.”

Hurst has a daughter, Kailee, 17, at Dixie County High School, and a son, Shelton, 18, who is a freshman finance major at the University of Central Florida. She has around an hour-long commute from her home in Dixie County, which she says gives her time to reflect and consider her priorities for the upcoming day.

The transition has been made easier, says Hurst, by interim principal Marla Hiers, the former principal at Williston Elementary School.

“I always respected her, and we both speak the same language on instruction,” Hurst said. “So I was excited when I found out she would be the interim principal and kind of mentoring me through the transition.

“It’s been good for the staff too because they don’t have to get used to yet another principal with another viewpoint.”