2020 Florida Principal of the Year – Sarajean McDaniel (PART 1)

This is the first part of our two-part interview with Sarajean McDaniel.

Learn how William D. Moseley Elementary School overcame severe behavior issues, habitually low-performance, and high teacher turnover to become a fast-developing, thriving, C-grade school in just one year.

How did your journey begin as the Principal at Moseley?

I had been a principal for eight years at another elementary school in the district. Moseley was under the state requirement of having a turnaround principal join their lead team. And, the way it works in Putnam County is, the superintendent assigns you to the school.

I got that call, and of course I was a bit overwhelmed. Moseley had been at a state grade of D or F for 10 years prior. Then I thought to myself, “You know what? This is an honor. I can do it!”

That’s when I changed my mindset and became excited – ready to take on that challenge as a new leader of Moseley.

What were the conditions like before partnering with LSI?

Well the school grade was what the perception was built upon. However, when we dove in a little deeper, one of the most concerning data points was that there were 571 discipline referrals at the midyear point. It was evident that we could not even begin to address the academics until we got that discipline just a little bit under control.

“There were 571 discipline referrals at the midyear point…we had to get that under control.”

We wanted to make sure that we built those relationships between teachers and students. That’s what really turns that discipline around.

To do that, we had to build pride in the school. We had to build pride with the students, with the parents, and with the community. That was our first focus.

“We had to build pride with the students, the parents, and the community.”

Naturally, we knew academics had to improve – but we had one year to do this. Everything had to happen simultaneously! We had some big issues to tackle.

Another issue was staff turnover. We had to hire 30 new teachers and staff members in short order.

The bottom line was this – if Moseley did not improve in the first year, it could close.

Mosley is a pillar in our community. We’re a very small town, so I really didn’t want that to happen under my watch. We worked very hard to build that trust so that we could move forward and beyond that.

We started the summer with a big kickoff party. Our theme was, “The Future is Moseley’s”

Tell us how you were able to reduce referrals so quickly?

We knew we had to address the behavior problems and keep kids in classrooms – but we also support that.

It just doesn’t happen by itself. You certainly can’t promote academics with 20 kids in the front office.

Sometimes when you investigate the data, you’ll find that maybe it wasn’t always the students.

We asked ourselves, what are we using to write discipline referrals? What are these behaviors? Are they classroom behaviors?

We not only worked with the students – we worked with the staff to build compassion, acceptance and promote that relationship piece.

This even helped reduce teacher turnover. It happened by building on a common practice and speaking a common language.

“You certainly can’t promote academics with 20 kids in the front office. So, we created a behavior team…”

Our process included creating a behavior team with 3 support staff members. They were out in the school on the grounds and always on call. They were able to create those safe relationships with the kids and sometimes step in and take kids out of the class and help get them back on track and at the same time giving the teacher a break.

It was a quick turning point. This included a new teacher mentor on staff to support and go alongside the classroom management and new learnings. Those few extra factors really paved the way for that first-year success.

Talk more about shared leadership, how big of a part did that play?

Absolutely. I came into Moseley and made some quick but really tough decisions about who I needed on that leadership team. We built that team from the administrative level so we could be the models. I consider myself very strong with motivating and promoting the school. But I needed someone who was going to be that disciplinarian. I know my strengths and I know what I needed in a team.

We hired a new teacher mentor and sought out a person that also complimented the lead team. Our Guidance Counselor is very organized, her skills and knowledge of MTSS brought so much more to the table. Our Curriculum Coach is a master at teaching and planning.

“That you have to build teams at all levels to be an effective leader”

Implementing Academic Teaming in the classroom was our ultimate focus but to do that you have to build teams at all levels to be an effective leader. You have to remember that can’t do everything yourself.


In part two, Sarajean will discuss Student-led Academic Teaming and how it helped create a common language and success criteria across the entire school and how it was instrumental in closing learning gaps and catapulting Moseley further than they’d ever imagined they could go!

Click here to read Part Two


Meet Sarajean – virtually! – at the 2020 Building Expertise Educators Conference

Sarajean and her team and students will be presenting a live virtual session titled Moving Mountains – How can Empowered Students Maintain School Culture in a Virtual Environment at the 2020 Building Expertise Virtual Conference on June 17-19, 2020. Learn more and browse the other 30+ expert-led sessions here.

How to Partner with LSI

If you are interested in learning more about LSI, Student-led Academic Teaming and how it can help your school or district, please follow this link and complete the contact form, an LSI expert will get back to you right away!

About Sarajean McDaniel

Sarajean McDaniel was selected Saturday as the 2020 Florida Principal of the Year by the state Department of Education.

McDaniel was recognized for her role in improvements made at Moseley Elementary School in Palatka. The school was removed from the state’s turnaround list in 2019 when it improved to a C rating.

Putnam County School Superintendent Rick Surrency said McDaniel “exemplifies excellence in educational leadership.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis made the announcement Saturday on his Twitter page, tweeting: “Congratulations to Ms. Sarajean Branam McDaniel, Florida’s 2020 Principal of the Year. Her hard work and commitment have made a difference in the lives of the students and staff at Moseley Elementary School and the community.”

Surrency said McDaniel’s honor was “a great day for Putnam County.”