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Episode 15: Florida Principal of the Year, Adam Lane

Adam Lane is a principal at Haines City Senior High School in Polk County District, Florida. Adam Lane has worked in K-12 public education since 1995, ranging from high, middle, and elementary schools. During that time, Lane also held various positions as a teacher, department head, athletic coach, athletic trainer, assistant principal, and principal.  

As principal at Haines City High School and HCIV, Lane serves 2,900 students, 230 staff members, and five assistant principals. Under Lane’s leadership, Haines City High School includes an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, the Environmental, Agricultural, and Technology Academy, the Academy of Media Production, the Academy of Children’s Educational Studies, the Visual Arts Pathway, and the Performing Arts Pathway.  

Principal Adam Lane believes the key to success is decision making, relationship building, and positive behavior to create an unforgettable experience and raise student achievement. Lane works to provide a positive and successful learning environment while striving to improve students’ academic, emotional, and social development. He believes in providing students with the foundation of education that promotes lifelong learning.  

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [02:11] 
Thank you. The recent news is that Adam recently received a Principle of the Year award. Congratulations! We’re really honored to have you here today.  

Adam Lane [02:23] 
Yeah, thank you. It just happened over the summer in June and on the NASSP, which is the National Association of Secondary School Principals. I’m the State of Florida Principal nomination. There’s one for each state, and then in October, during Principal Week, they’ll pick the National Principal of the Year. I’m excited to be in the running.  

Nati Rodriguez [02:43] 
Awesome. That’s great. What an honor it is for us to have you and would love to hear about the work that you’ve been doing. Can you please share about why you’ve been recognized as Principal of the Year for Florida?  

Adam Lane [02:55] 
Yeah, I think one of the reasons is I started out as a member of the Florida Association of School Administrators, which is our state organization, and we have some great committees. We have a diversity committee, membership committee, conference planning committee, and a legislative committee. One of them, our legislative committee, it’s really powerful. It’s a group of principals that advocate for education. We go to Tallahassee; we meet with senators and representatives from our districts. We even go to Washington, DC; we meet with representatives for our states. 

Every year is a little different. This last year our main three priorities, that I’m sure you can relate to, was the first one was the educator shortage and building that principal pipeline. How do we make the education profession shine and promote it to attract people? It used to be such a prestigious place to be. 

Have we slipped from there and how do we get it back? How do we build that pipeline from substitutes to teachers to assistant principals to principals? What’s that going to take?  

What do we need from our legislatives and our senators and our representatives to build that back?  

Our second main concern this year, whether we’re in Tallahassee or Washington, is our school mental health resources and safety, and it was always a concern. After two years of e-learning and you don’t have that day-to-day connection with a lot of our students, we need more social workers, we need more counselors, we need more psychologists.  

The third one is the conditions of our buildings. How do we make sure we have new buildings for the development in certain areas, so we’re not overcrowding schools, especially old schools. Even our old schools, how do we upgrade them with new HVAC systems and everything we need for just a safe environment?  

That’s just touching base on one of the committees and how busy we can be working with legislators, representatives, senators and really making the education profession the number one thing people should want to go into after school. 

Nati Rodriguez [05:31] 
Agree. Thank you. That’s one of the initiatives that Learner really is trying to support is how do we get more teachers in the classroom. What does that pipeline look like? How do we get people excited and retain them? I’m curious what the outcomes of some of this work has been, or is it still in the process? What does that look like?  

Adam Lane [05:48] 
It’s still in the process, but I can tell you, depending on what state and what policies have come about, I can say in Florida, I believe it’s gotten much better. There are a lot of incentives for new teachers. Our starting pay was just raised to $47,500. People coming out of college need to also realize that’s a ten-month contract; there are still two months that you can either go lay on the beach and relax and get your lesson plans ready, or you can get another job. And the benefits of our health packages have increased with better coverage. The amount of personal days and sick days have increased. There are even incentives now for moving expenses to go to certain districts that they’ll cover the cost to get you there. The mental health piece, there has been more funds issued, where I can say at my school, I’m up to 13 guidance counselors, and I have a full-time psychologist and a full-time social worker, which I always had to share one before with other schools, but now they’re right there on campus every day, which is amazing.  

Nati Rodriguez [07:08] 
That’s great. Do you know anything about credentialing – is that changing in Florida or at the national level? Are teachers starting to get paid sooner, making it easier for them to get through the credentialing system so that they can get in the classroom faster?  

Adam Lane [07:22] 
Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of fantastic people that are just so good for kids, but maybe they were not an education major, maybe they were a major in another field. Let’s say you have a four-year degree in marketing, but I have a science opening. You might be a fantastic person that knows science, but you’re not certified in education. You’re not certified in science. I can hire you for one calendar year, and we can work on courses, and we can work on passing the state exam in science to get you certified to be a science teacher the next year. That’s just a one-year entrance to pull in great people that just maybe missed the boat on the education profession but realize “I love the salary; I love summers off, and I love being around kids. I’m just a good relationship maker”, and that’s what that policy was made for.  

Nati Rodriguez [08:21] 
That’s great. I’m glad to hear that those are changing to make it easier. In your new role as Florida Association of School Administrators President – congratulations on that – what goals do you have for this upcoming year?  

Adam Lane [08:35] 
As president of the Florida Association of Secondary School Principals, what I’m really looking for is I want to increase membership in FASA. I want more principals to join our state organization, but you got to have a purpose. They have to feel a purpose to join. I’m looking to build our networking. That is something that joining FASA and becoming a NASSP member has done for me, is the networking opportunities to call a principal in Colorado and say, “Hey, are you having homecoming this year?  

Especially during the COVID times – “How are you handling homecoming?”  

Or you calling Rhode Island, “Are you going to blended learning? “Are you doing e-learning?”  

That networking piece that you’re not alone and you can call other districts in other states and have cell phones in your back pocket, is amazing. I really want to increase the membership to show them the purpose of the networking that can be involved. When you have that, you’re going to get more involvement and more numbers in things like the legislative committee that I mentioned, or the conference planning committee, or it goes on and on. I really want to focus on that membership, and that networking, and the involvement of great principles from around the state.  

Nati Rodriguez [10:02] 
Yeah, it sounds like it’s a really great opportunity for them to continue their learning as well. Sometimes when I think of teachers in the classroom, it can be very isolating and networking doesn’t come to mind when I think of education. It’s wonderful that it’s making its way to this organization. What has your own educational experience been like, and what drives you to do this work?  

Adam Lane [10:26] 
I grew up in northeastern Ohio – a very rural area, small school, sports, Future Farmers of America, very community-based. The school and the functions of the school were just the highlight of every night and every weekend for everybody, whether you had kids at school or not. I loved that, and I had such amazing teachers, and I still stay in contact with them. That’s what made me want to go into the education profession and be a teacher, which led me to want to be a principal and help teachers become better teachers. 

You know what leads me is relationship building, decision making, creating unforgettable moments. I think any of my staff will tell you we really focus on making good decisions. How do we become better decision makers? What leads us to make a decision and do we get better day to day through trial and error because we’re all at different levels.  

The main thing is we’re going to go through things, and we need to make sure we’re better tomorrow than we were today, and we’re better at graduation time than we were at freshman orientation. 

You mentioned as a teacher, you never thought of networking. Well, you need a principal that’s going to bring teachers together and make that number one on their priorities. I’m going to create moments to bring people together to communicate and to share. We’re going to make it unforgettable, so they want to come back to work every day, and the teachers keep coming back, and the students want to come back and learn. 

As a principal, you better create unforgettable moments that they don’t want to be anywhere else but at your school.  

Nati Rodriguez [12:21] 
Well, that brings me to my next question, which you’ve touched on a little bit. I’d love for you to share what it feels like to walk into Haines City Senior High School. What does one see, hear, feel? Can you paint a picture for us?  

Adam Lane [12:33] 
First of all, I wish you could come down, I’d walk you through the halls and take you on a tour. My second year there, we got a group of students, parents, community members, teachers together, and we re-wrote our whole vision and mission to match exactly what you said.  

How do you feel when you walk the halls?  

What do you see?  

What do you hear?  

Does your heart beat?  

Do you get tears in your eyes? 

Because  what was on paper didn’t match what we were doing. We wanted to write a vision and mission to match what we’re doing. Our focus is that we’re a PBIS school – Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. We’re one of 19 high schools in the state of Florida, but we’re relationship based. Everything has to start with a relationship before curriculum; a relationship before testing; a relationship before the pacing guide. So we don’t rush to the curriculum. We rush to build a foundation of relationships. We start out – we want our students to serve as productive, responsible citizens. When you come in as a freshman, I’m not concerned where you’re going to go to college in four years. I’m not concerned right then where you’re going to go to work. I’m concerned about your behavior. Are you a productive, responsible citizen? And do you know what that means? If I can make sure that’s in place, colleges are going to want you, the workforce is going to want you, the military is going to want you.

Once we know you’re a productive, responsible citizen, and you have that respect for your classmates and your teachers, then we prepare you for one of three things.   

  1. We’re going to make sure you are ready to go to the workforce and make some good money.  
  2. We’re going to make sure every college and university is beating down your door because they want you for your post-secondary education. 
  3. Or we have a very strong JROTC program, and a lot of our students have careers in the military.  

I could go on and on about all of it. We created a place called Hornet Nation – we’re the Haines City Hornets. The kids and everyone came up with Hornet Nation. Really, it’s a membership club that we’re all part of. We feel safe there. We feel a sense of pride. We feel confidence. We have common ground. It’s just like a connection that explodes and makes your energy go crazy.  

Nati Rodriguez [15:09] 
I love it. I think it’s very telling that it took awhile for us to even talk about curriculum and testing because sometimes I feel like schools are so driven by that. So, it’s refreshing to hear relationship first.  

Adam Lane [15:22] 
Yeah. Curriculum and testing will not make you excited to come back to school every day. Relationship building and loving your teachers, and you can’t wait to have lunch with your classmates, that stuff will keep you coming back. You’re ready to dive into the curriculum and testing with your teachers and your classmates because you feel supported, like you’re not going to let each other down. You have such a level of respect for each other.  

Nati Rodriguez [16:27] 
We may have already answered the next question, but you were able to decrease discipline referrals by 31% and increase graduation rates by 20% in the last years. What do you attribute this to?  

Adam Lane [16:40] 
Well, there’s a direct data correlation that we realized five years after we started it. I’ll start with the end in mind. We found out, as our discipline referrals went down – and I’m talking in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension – overall discipline referrals went down. Our grad rate consistently went up as our discipline referrals went down, but there was a middle section missing and then we realized what it was. It was, as discipline referrals went down, teacher retention went up because teachers wanted to be at Haines City High School because it wasn’t all about arguing. It wasn’t all about writing discipline referrals. It wasn’t all about kicking kids out of the class. It was about building relationships and feeling good and having a nice climate and culture. 

As discipline went down, teacher retention went up. That automatically drove graduation rates to go up. To drive the graduation rate up was never one of our goals we even discussed. In the beginning, it was just how do we get kids to come to school and not be suspended? How do we even get them to school because they only show up about once every 10-15 days? I think the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports system was one of the major factors because we had students, and staff, and parents and community members, create expectations on – how do we expect you to behave in the classroom? How do we expect you to behave when you use a restroom? What’s the expectation when I go into the cafeteria? When I’m in the hallway, what are the expectations?  

When you have 3,000 kids on one tiny little piece of real estate, they better understand every specific detail of what the expectation is for you to behave. And then we created the Hornet Buck. Not only did you have the expectation, but when you met it, we rewarded you with what we call the Hornet Buck, which is money that you can go to the school store and spend. Our school store is like a Super Walmart. It has everything you can imagine from shirts, pens, pencils, lanyards, hats, and it’s all plastered with Hornet Nation and Haines City High School. If you set the expectation, you have a reward system, and then you have the means to cash in your reward. Who doesn’t want to be recognized? Who doesn’t want positive feedback? Who doesn’t want that in front of their classmates? Even if you’re bad, you’re going to become good because you want attention too, and misbehaving isn’t going to get it for you on our campus.  

Nati Rodriguez [20:12] 
Thank you for sharing how this also helped with teacher retention. One of the ways we actually found you, Adam, was through a profile, I believe it was on EdWeek, about how you were able to avoid staffing shortages. So, can you talk about that? What’s the secret sauce?  

Adam Lane [20:30] 
That article came out as we have not had any staff shortages in six years. And that was prior to COVID. Even through the COVID tough times when there were a lot of vacancies, we just didn’t have it. It’s because of our alumni. We have been graduating people that love their teachers, love the culture, love the experience of high school, had all those unforgettable moments in their mind, and when they graduated, they would come back as substitutes, daily substitutes, long term substitutes. We would work on them as they’re working on their four-year degree in education. Maybe they would sub for me and work for me Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and take their college courses Tuesday, Thursday, or maybe they’d go to college in the morning for half a day and come in and help me in the afternoon and sub for me at the end of the day.  

Once they had their degree, we’d put them right into a teaching position. I have alumni that are subs, teachers, secretaries, assistant principals, custodians, you go on and on. You know how it goes. Once you become a staff member and you graduated with 17 of your friends, and then you start talking and before you know it, four more of your friends are now teachers in your hallway. It just becomes a real family-oriented type place. I think a lot of that is you got to have a good product. There are high schools students graduate from, they get their diplomas, and they run, and they will never come back. For the rest of their life, they will never bring their family or kids back. Then there are those high schools where they graduate, and they want to hang out. They want to bring their husband or wife and kids to football games and hang out.  

You really got to build that product, but then you got to make sure your seniors are invited and encouraged to come back and work with you to make the school an even better place. The article you read, that’s what that was all about, is we couldn’t rely on anybody. As a principal, even my first three years, I was like, “I’m going to graduate these kids, get them ready for the real world and say goodbye.” Well, they’re awesome. Why am I not recruiting them after they graduate to come back and fill my vacancies? You really got to have that mind shift to get the pipeline going.  

Nati Rodriguez [23:08] 
Yes. I love how you talk, and I have a little bit of business background, but hearing you talk about it as a product and building this culture reminds me of business. If you’re wanting people to come back and have the best [talent], that’s definitely a great approach. Just wondering why more people aren’t doing it.  

Adam Lane [23:29] 
It is a business. It’s not just sipping milk and sitting on a carpet square. It’s a business. There is grades, diplomas, people are demoted, promoted, fired. I mean, it goes on and on. We need to treat education like a business on the surface, but it’s very fun and loving, and mushy on the inside. Who better to hire than an alumni student that knows your mission, your vision, has walked your halls, knows your expectations, knows exactly as a teacher what those kids need, because you know what, you were just that kid four years ago. You know exactly what that kid needs.  

Nati Rodriguez [24:13] 
Yeah, that’s great. Given your experience and your success in recruiting and retaining talent, what advice do you have for other leaders? If they wanted to start somewhere, where could they start?  

Adam Lane [24:25] 
Well, I can tell you where I started, and I was never a principal before Haines City. I just opened up my 8th year. I love it. A lot of principals will come in, and they feel they got to change everything; they have the final piece of decision-making out of everybody. Yes, that’s true, but you’re only one person. I got a staff of 247 now. I’m up to six assistant principals now. Our enrollment keeps going up, but I got to realize, really, my job is to create a platform for people to express their self and feel empowered.  

So, an example, when I got there, we were on a seven-period day, 48 minutes, seven periods. When COVID came about, we switched to a block schedule. We met every other day for 90 minutes just to reduce seating charts, reduce movement, and try to make it a safer environment. Last year, my teachers came to me, my department heads, and said, “Hey, can we vote and see if the staff and students want to go back to a seven out of seven?” 

The block schedule, a lot of people just felt it was tough, like a 90 minutes class and you meet every other day. That connection of meeting, I need to meet you every day. I don’t care how long it is, we need to check and connect. We had multiple discussions with faculty and students. Students shared their opinions to the faculty; faculty shared their opinions to the students. We took it to a vote. They voted they wanted to go back to a straight seven out of seven, but we do that with everything. We do that with dress code.  

Do we allow rips and tears in the jeans? 

Do we allow crocs?  

Are we going to allow hats outside?  

Do we take them off inside?  

What I’m trying to say, I could just sit there and say, “We’re doing this, we’re doing this, but no one’s going to listen to me.” 

If I create a platform and have discussions and forums and set up a voting system, everyone has buy-in to everything from the dress code to the bell schedule. I think my main advice to principles, outside of relationships first, is to create a platform for discussion, forums, and voting, and let your people decide what they want and go with it. 

Nati Rodriguez [26:54] 
Did you say that the students also have a voice in this?  

Adam Lane [26:58] 
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely they do. Our teachers like listening to the students, like packing your backpack. A teacher doesn’t think what goes into a teenager’s mind at home when they pack their backpack. They shared how confusing it was not knowing if it was a green or white day and which classes they had. They always brought everything, and it hurt their back. It was tough to carry it. Where if they have a straight seven, they felt like teachers gave them less books, gave them less work, because they see them every day. In the end, it wasn’t that they did less work or had less books, but it felt like it, and they knew exactly where they were going. Instead of, you miss one block day, you might not see your teacher the whole week. It’s just creating those environments where you learn from each other.  

Nati Rodriguez [27:49] 
That’s fantastic. I think what I remember hearing from students is the sense of not really having a voice in decision making. Being able to be a part of that, at such a young age – it’s wonderful that there is a space for that, and then also for teachers to learn about the student experience, because the further out you are, the more you forget.  

Adam Lane [28:12] 
Yeah. One of my favorite events is we do lunch with the principal on the last Friday of every month. Like I said with the Hornet bucks, they use ten of them for a chance ticket. I usually have about 100 or 200 kids and then I pick ten of them, and our local Pizza Hut or different restaurants to bring in food. Well, that’s what it’s all about. We sit together and they tell me what they like, what they want to change; the restrooms need more paint, or we really like the new senior parking lot. I don’t know that stuff unless I sit down and have pizza and some soda with them and really hang out to hear what their concerns are or what to continue and what not to do anymore.  

Nati Rodriguez [28:57] 
Thank you for sharing that. It makes me want to visit. Can you tell us about the importance of the academies and the IB program at your school?  

Adam Lane [29:07] 
We have 3,000 kids, and you can get lost. We all know smaller learning communities produce more, not only mental benefits, but academic benefits. We have an IB program, JROTC program, and career academies, such as the Academy of Children’s Educational Studies. We have an Academy of Media Production. A lot of those kids will go on to work at Universal Studios and Disneyland and Island Adventure. Some of them want to be in front of the camera, some of them want to be behind the camera and learn sound and lighting. 

Our other big academy is the Environmental, Agriculture, and Technology Academy. Those kids are like in my day, the Future Farmers of America, but it’s so much more developed now. They have their own livestock; they have their own citrus field. We try to create as many cool academies and programs such as IB and JROTC.  

We make sure every student on our campus falls into at least one of those just to have a smaller learning community. They hang out together, they go to sports together, they have study hall together. It brings the parents of those kids together. I just think without that academy piece, kids are going to get lost and possibly lose an interest in school.  

Nati Rodriguez [30:50] 
I’m just going to switch gears here. What are you reading, watching, or listening to? 

Adam Lane [30:55] 
I’m not too big on watching or listening. I like listening to music. I’m an 80s rock hair band guy, so everything from Guns and Roses to Def Leopard, Bon Jovi. I really like my music. I play a little guitar on the side. I’m trying to get better every day and learn songs from my students and staff. I’m taking their requests, but I do like to read.  

Two of the books I’ve been reading most recently – and I kind of read them before, but you go back and revisit the great ones – is Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. I think that is a great book for anybody, especially principals and teachers, because when you look at the tipping point, it’s all about that magic moment when an idea, or a trend, or a social behavior crosses that threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. We talk about as a principal building a culture. Well, it’s like you watch the needle. You’re not there, you’re not there, and boom, everyone wants to work there, and that’s that tipping point you work for. Or as a teacher, your kids just aren’t getting it. You keep retesting them and assessing, and all you want is for it to connect so they can somehow show you. I remember, as a teacher, the tipping point when you finally figured out how to make that connection to get that information into them so you know it. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is one of my most recent rereads, and that’s going to be my recommendation for the day.  

Nati Rodriguez [32:33] 
Thank you so much, Adam. It’s definitely a pleasure to witness someone so visionary and who’s instilled such a culture of leadership and empowerment for your staff and your students. We’re really excited to hear what happens in October and thank you.