Born and raised in rural South Georgia, Carol Ricks feels right at home in Myakka City, where she lives with her husband and two children on a five-acre plot of land and serves as principal of Myakka Elementary School.
After three years at the school — during which the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the education system, a rezoning initiative brought a significant increase in enrollment and Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc on the tight-knit community — Ricks has been named Principal of the Year by the School District of Manatee County. Fellow USF Sarasota-Manatee campus alumna Adrienne Vos of Louise R. Johnson K-8 School of International Studies was named Assistant Principal of the Year in Manatee County.
“I’m shocked,” said Ricks, who earned her M.Ed. in educational leadership from the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus in 2014. “There are so many principals doing great things in the district — many of them from USF. It’s a lot to live up to.”
Conferred by the Florida Department of Education, Ricks’ award recognizes exemplary school administrators for their contributions to their schools and communities — including spearheading initiatives to increase student performance, promoting safe learning environments and establishing partnerships with parents and community members.
Before stepping into her current role, Ricks taught first and fourth grade at elementary schools across the Manatee County school district and in her hometown in Lowndes County, Ga. It was when Ricks transferred to Gene Witt Elementary in Manatee County that her principal encouraged her to go into leadership and she enrolled in the M.Ed. program on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.
“I’d never really considered that for myself,” said Ricks, who soon began taking on leadership roles for the first time in her career.
Upon graduating from USF, Ricks spent three years serving as the assistant principal at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School — where she became inspired to push for new school attendance boundary lines — before moving into her current role at Myakka.
“In my first year here at Myakka, we had about 240 students, and there were probably six or seven empty classrooms,” Ricks said. "I knew the Falkner Farm migrant students were originally zoned out here. And I also knew that McNeal was overwhelmed with students and that bussing was an issue because of the distance.”
When James Golden, then a member of the Manatee County School Board, asked how he could help, Ricks suggested they look into rezoning.
District leaders voted unanimously to approve the proposed new school attendance boundary lines right around the same time the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many students and educators out of the classroom and into e-learning environments.
“With COVID, it was a true challenge out here because we’re so rural,” Ricks said. “Many of my families don’t have internet access. It’s really considered a luxury out here."
The school partnered with local businesses and churches to provide internet access to the community, all while welcoming 100 new students from the Falkner Farm migrant camp into the school.
“Everything happened at once. There was the language barrier, the internet barrier and the technology access issues,” Ricks said. “We basically had, like, six first days of school in the fall of 2020.”
Throughout all of it, Ricks worked as an advocate for the school, its students and the larger community.
“As soon as they said we were going to go e-learning, I had to jump in and fight for the hotspots and for internet access,” said Ricks.
The next year, she advocated for a school-based bus program to address local transportation issues and instituted an elementary agriculture program — an important step in turning Myakka into a Community Partnership School like Daughtry Elementary, which adopted the innovative Community Partnership Schools model this year.
When asked whether she’d like to see Myakka partner with USF, Ricks said she would love to.
“As a Community Partnership School, we would have access to healthcare and education for the families, like GED lessons, English lessons and mental health,” said Ricks. “I just really try to speak for the community and get them what they need.”
Then, on Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall on the west coast of Florida, battering Myakka City and the surrounding areas for hours and causing widespread flooding.
“We ended up doing a community support drive with the Myakka Community Center,” said Ricks, who oversaw the transformation of the elementary school into a shelter during the storm while her husband, a lineman with Florida Power and Light, worked to restore electricity across the county.
As Ricks prepares her application for the Florida Department of Education’s statewide Principal of the Year award and reviews the assignments she completed as a student in the M.Ed. program on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, she is surprised to see so much overlap between her graduate school aspirations and her life today.
“One of the recurring themes in all the portfolio activities I had to do was that I wanted to be a servant-leader and that I wanted to focus on the school climate and culture and to focus on the whole child,” Ricks said. “I didn’t see myself as a leader at that time, but looking at where I am now, it’s all trickled into what my vision is as a leader at Myakka and working toward giving the kids all they need to be successful, not just academically, but give them that positive climate, the love and support they need, and collaborate with the community and the families.”
That vision is what inspired Ricks, this October, to adopt a therapy dog named Ruby, who, once fully trained, will provide grief and anxiety support to students at Myakka.
“Right now, her main goal is to get used to being around kids and adults,” Ricks said.
Like the principal at McNeal Elementary School, who encouraged Ricks to pursue a leadership position and enroll in graduate school at USF, Ricks also seeks to identify potential leaders among the faculty at Myakka.
“USF, hands down, is my first pick for anyone who’s interested,” Ricks said. “They gave me the groundwork I needed to be a successful leader.”
Boundless Bulls is a collection of stories about what truly makes USF great — the people. It is a focus on our community footprint, our impact and the trajectory of where we can go together. To nominate a member of the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus community for Boundless Bulls, please fill out the submission form.