MEET THE NEW KEY WEST HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL LARRY SCHMIEGEL

Principal Larry Schmiegel takes the helm at Key West High School this year. He had previously served as after principal at Poinciana Elementary since 2016. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

This isn’t Larry Schmiegel’s first rodeo. 

The new Key West High School principal may have come most recently from Poinciana Elementary School, but he’s no stranger to the “big kids” — nor the often bigger issues that often face high school students and staff.

Schmiegel came to the Florida Keys in 2016 from New York state, where he earned two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and state certifications to be both principal and superintendent.

“But I started as a high school teacher in New York and I loved it,” he said. “I left the classroom in 2006 to become a principal and administrator in high school and K-8 schools in New York. I became what they called a ‘turnaround principal,’” changing schools every two years or so to turn around struggling schools that were in danger of state sanctions. 

“I’ve always been attracted to underdog situations, and to those who don’t think they have a voice,” Schmiegel told the Keys Weekly on Friday, Aug. 13, the second day of school for Monroe County students. 

Superintendent of School Theresa Axford announced this summer that Schmiegel would take the reins at Key West High School after former principal Christina McPherson became the director of teaching and learning at the district headquarters. 

“Dr. Schmiegel puts students first in everything he does,” Axford told the Keys Weekly on Monday. “Schools in some cases put adult needs over those of the students. That’s not the case with Larry. His heart and his head are focused on the right priorities and I think KWHS will grow under his leadership.”

Schmiegel recalled his arrival at Poinciana in 2016.

“My biggest challenge was that Poinciana Elementary had always been an A-rated school. But then its demographics changed and we had more students and families that were struggling — more low-income students, more exceptional students and more English language learners. It had dropped to a C grade when I arrived, but when I left it was back to being an A school.”

Schmiegel increased the focus on Exceptional Student Education, increasing the number of teachers and providing supplementary instruction for students who needed it. 

He plans to do the same at Key West High School.

“I’m here for the students,” he said. “My job is to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all students. I’m not opposed to tradition, but we have to equitably allocate resources. For example, I had more ESE (exceptional student education) teachers at Poinciana than I do here at Key West High School,” which welcomed approximately 1,350 students back the first week of school.

He knows the job won’t necessarily be easy, but Schmiegel said, “I love coming to work and sending there’s a purpose. While we’re doing some things really, really well, there’s also some things we can do a little differently, instructionally.

“For instance, we have 108 students here at Key West High who are in danger of not graduating due to their English/Language Arts performance,” a subject heavily dependent on a student’s reading proficiency, Schmiegel said.  “And we have 60 students in danger of not graduating due to their math performance. So I’ve already created a graduation task force of teachers and staff who will focus on getting those students where they need to be.”

Despite the school’s tight grip on long-held traditions, Schmiegel said he’s been more than pleased with the staff’s and faculty’s willingness to embrace change.

“Their energy has been so positive; I really haven’t gotten the sense that they’re opposed to change, especially when there’s a clear destination that we’re trying to reach. There’s so many opportunities and potential here. I don’t want to be just a figurehead; I want to know these students and make a real difference.”

Schmiegel is also a single father to two sons he adopted in New York. His younger son is in third grade at Poinciana; the other is a freshman at Key West High.

“One thing I learned is that after-school tutoring here at KWHS typically started in January,” Schmiegel said. “But I want to start it soon, as in now. And I already have teachers eagerly signing up to participate.”

Schmiegel has sent a survey to parents and students asking what their hopes are for the school, and what they’d like to see change.  He’s also created a theme for the year of “Rising Strong! Conch Strong!” 

Finally, Schmiegel plans to implement, over the next two years, the PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) program at Key West High School.

As of October 2019, PBIS has been implemented in more than 27,000 schools nationwide. Florida has the second highest number of participating schools, with more than 2,000 schools trained in it across 60 school districts.

Key West High School has been the only public school in Monroe County that doesn’t utilize the behavior-improvement program that teaches students to achieve their desired outcomes, prevents problem behaviors, provides relevant incentives for good behavior and tailors consequences to the behavior.

“I’m really looking forward to this year and subsequent years here at Key West High School,” he said. “The staff and faculty have energy, momentum and plenty of out-of-the-box thinking that’s been so encouraging to see.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.