One big school family
SEBRING - School may be out for summer, but for Sebring Middle School Principal Sandi Whidden the task of planning and preparing for the next school year has just begun. Staff changes, upgrades to classroom technology, curriculum, and continued education for herself and the teachers at SMS are forefront in the mind of this award-winning educator. This past April, the likeable educator was honored as Principal of the Year at the Highlands County School Board 2013 Summit Awards. Sebring Middle School principal for 12 years, Whidden said she believes the school's 11-year record as an "A" rated school may have earned her the recognition."It was a humbling experience. I prefer to remain under the radar," said Whidden. "I think of the successes this school has had as a team effort." In an office overflowing with 33 years of gifts from students, award plaques and family photos, Whidden explained that she chose a career as an educator because she always wanted to serve others. "Sandi Whidden is a true servant leader," said Superintendent of Schools Wally Cox. "Much of the success at Sebring Middle School is the fact that they have great teachers and support staff. The staff enjoys working for Sandi, and she inspires them to do great things for kids." Whidden gives credit not only to her staff, but also to the exemplary efforts of her students and the support she receives from parents. "I run the school like a family. If you build relationships, everything else will fall into place," she emphasized. Born in a suburb of Chicago, Whidden grew up in Miami. She earned her degree in Special Education from Stetson University, then began her career as a teacher in 1980 at Sebring Middle. "I met my husband in the teacher's lounge," she said of Mason, a popular Sebring Middle School gifted teacher. The couple married in April of 1981. Their 30-year-old son, Gary, is a West Point graduate who will soon be an instructor at the prestigious academy. A collage of banners, newspaper cuttings and photos from his days as a football player, along with the time he met Gov. Jeb Bush and his 2005 cadet graduation are a silent reminder of a mother's pride. "We now have our first grandchild, Savannah Belle," beamed Whidden. Her 27-year-old daughter, Kristin, who has autism, lives at home and attends the Visions Adult Day Training program at New Concepts by Visions Inc. "My parents are a big part of her care," said Whidden, of Ted and Judi Sneesby who moved to Sebring from Miami in 1990. "It has been a blessing to live in a small town where people are so kind," said Whidden. She added, "Almost everything I do is related to what I do here (SMS) plus my work with my daughter." Whidden does enjoys walking, exercising at Gold's Gym and travel. Though one of her favorite trips was a cruise to Alaska, it is family vacations with Kristin that hold a special place in her heart. With over 700 students at Sebring Middle, Whidden's commitment to education keeps her busy. A yellow towel in hand to wipe school benches, Whidden met with technical staff and ITR teacher Kim Douberley about upgrading classroom Smart Boards, checked on a teacher's workshop then dashed off to her office for a planning conference that included Sebring Middle's new assistant principal, Shawn West. "That's what it takes to make things work," stressed Whidden, who will take off two weeks this summer, part of which will be spent at an AVID training program in Orlando. AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) is a nationwide college-readiness program that was developed by English teacher Mary Swanson in 1980 in California. The program, which targets students that have the potential to be in advanced classes, emphasizes challenging students and teaching study and organization skills. "All four middle schools and all three high schools (in Highlands County) are going to be implementing the AVID program," said Whidden. As a result, Sebring Middle will receive 52 laptops from AVID grant funding to be used in the course after students start school on Aug. 19. "I'm very proud of the work we do here and the people that work with me every day," said Whidden. "That's what makes this a great place to come to work every day."