McPherson readies for principal role at Key West High School

Principal Christina McPherson. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Christina McPherson hadn’t intended to teach when she was a student at Florida State University, and she certainly hadn’t planned on being principal of an elementary, middle or high school.

But plans changed when McPherson returned to Key West after college, and a particular Help Wanted ad caught her eye. That was 26 years ago and McPherson recently was chosen to take the reins as principal of Key West High School in the fall, following the retirement of current principal Amber Archer Acevedo.

The Key West Weekly caught up with McPherson in her office at Horace O’Bryant School, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and where McPherson is currently principal.

We wanted to know who McPherson is, what she wants Key West High School to be, and how times — and kids — have changed since she faced her first-ever social studies class.

How long have you been principal of HOB? This is my fourth year. 

Haven’t you also served as assistant principal and principal at other area schools? Yes, I’ve been an assistant principal at Key West High School. I also worked in the district’s headquarters as director of accountability and assessment. I’ve been principal of Poinciana Elementary, now HOB and next year on to Key West High School.

That’s a lot of school jobs for someone who didn’t plan on teaching. How did your career in education start? When I was an undergrad at Florida State, I had planned on becoming a lawyer, so my degree is in political communications. When I came back to Key West after college, I worked as an office manager for Historic Tours of America, but one day, on a whim, saw a job listing for a social studies teacher at Key West High School.

But your degree wasn’t in education. Was that a problem? Today it would be more of an issue, but back then, you only needed a bachelor’s degree to teach. So I applied for the job under principal Bobby Menendez, who had been my principal when I was a student. With no experience, he hired me to teach social studies, and I fell in love with it.

So you’ve now been with the school system long enough to know nearly everyone in town and to have taught the parents of some of today’s students. Oh yes, my son hates going to the grocery store with me, because of all the people we run into. And I just came across an old picture from when I was teaching Robert Lockwood in my government class. I also taught Jill Cranney-Gage, who’s also involved in local politics.

Were you born in Key West? No, my dad was in the Navy, so we got here when I was in fifth grade at Gerald Adams. Then I came here to HOB and then went to Key West High.

What’s your preference of age when it comes to the student population? I always used to say that the time between fourth and eighth grade is so crucial for a child, because if you lose them and their interest in school in that period, it’s so much more difficult to get them back into it once they’re in high school. So that thinking compelled me to come to HOB for a few years.

But now you’re moving back to the high school world? I am. And in this season of my life, I still just love working with all students, and one of my goals is to bring back that sense of school spirit and hometown pride in a high school with morning pep rallies and other initiatives involving our community partners.

So, coming from HOB, you’ll know a majority of the students at the high school next year? If they attended HOB, then yes, I’ll know them. But KWHS also gets the eighth graders from Sigsbee Charter School and Sugarloaf School. Plus, we always have an influx of new military families to get to know.

Is the age-old fear of being sent to the principal’s office a thing of the past? Is there a kinder, gentler approach coming from that office these days? Absolutely. And while discipline is still obviously an important piece of the puzzle, I’m not the only disciplinarian here at HOB or at Key West High. The assistant principals and I take turns handling each case.

So no one has to be the “bad guy” all the time? Exactly. And I’ve always had an open-door policy for students, staff and parents because I want to see and know what’s happening with all my students, not just those with behavior issues. 

Any specific goals for Key West High School? Yes! I’m looking forward to establishing more pre-apprenticeship programs that benefit both the high school students and the community employers who need a local workforce.

Do you have any particular fields in mind? Certainly hospitality is a no-brainer, given the sheer number of tourism- and hotel-related jobs around here. But I also just learned there’s a shortage of nail technicians, so I’d like to revisit a cosmetology program, as well as a possible partnership with The College of the Florida Keys for a marine propulsion program.

What’s been the biggest change you’ve witnessed during your time in the education field? I think the absolute inundation of social media and screen time has damaged society the most, particularly among young people. 

How so? It’s changed the way they communicate and what they’re exposed to. It requires less of their language, reading and writing skills, and I think there’s been a loss of innocence when it comes to the availability of pornography and other things they’re not yet prepared to see.

How do you handle the constant security concerns about the threat of school violence? You have to live with a sense of urgency and always be aware. Just last week, we had an incident here at HOB when an alarm was going off and we didn’t immediately know why. It turned out the kiln in the art department had overheated and the sprinkler system had been activated. But before we knew that, I got on the intercom and ordered everyone out. After that evacuation, everyone in the school — students and teachers — told me they had heard it in my voice: Something was wrong and this was not a drill. But everyone did exactly as we’ve practiced.

What’s one thing you enjoy most about teaching and education? It’s immensely rewarding to see a child succeed and conquer whatever was holding them back. But it also keeps you young. I know their music, their social media apps and their coded text language. 

Who will take your place here at HOB? That hasn’t been determined yet. They’ll be advertising the position.

Will any of your own four children be at Key West High School next year when you become principal? Yes, my son, Morgan, my youngest, is in ninth grade now, so he’ll be a sophomore next year. I don’t anticipate there being any issues.

You’ve now been with the school district for 26 years. Any plans to retire? Oh God, no. I have three kids in college: one at University of Florida; one at UCF in Orlando and one at TCC in Tallahassee. So I’ll be working forever. 

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