By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Palm Valley Academy Principal Jessica Richardson is in her 20th year as a St. Johns County educator and was recently named the 2019 St. Johns County Principal of the Year — but her path to becoming an educator unknowingly began when she was in the second grade and moved to the Middle East. Richardson’s family moved to Saudi Arabia because of a job opportunity that Richardson’s father took as an engineer for an oil company. Attending Jubail Academy, an international school, exposed Richardson to a culturally diverse group of people, teaching her about empathy, tolerance and diversity — all tools that she finds invaluable to her current position.
With no television, restaurants or fast food, Richardson said her time in the Middle East was unique and special and afforded her a chance to travel. At 15, Richardson attended high school at a boarding school, The Mercersburg Academy, in Mercersburg, Pa. Her parents remained in the Middle East for 27 years. In Pennsylvania, Richardson felt very close to her teachers since they all lived there together, and that experience made her appreciate the job of a teacher. Richardson next spent a year in Salisbury, NC, attending Catawba College (which she notes is smaller than Palm Valley Academy) and she ultimately transferred to the University of North Florida where she earned her bachelor’s degree. Richardson also holds a master’s degree from Grand Canyon University.
Q: How do you feel about being named the 2019 St. Johns County Principal of the Year?
A: I am very humbled and honored to represent our school district and to represent the work of my colleagues. It is nice to be recognized individually, but I hope that I am highlighting and showcasing all of us as servant leaders in our county. We have a fabulous school system, and it is great to use this platform to celebrate our staff, teachers and the children. I don’t love the recognition for myself, but I do like to highlight the amazing team of people around me.
Q: What are some of the challenges that you face at Palm Valley Academy, and how do you approach them as a school leader?
A: We are located in one of the fastest growing communities in the nation, so we face a lot of challenges and opportunities with this massive growth. We are around 1,900 for student population, and we were built for 1,500. We try to focus on what we can control, so that we are able to take care of anyone who comes through the door. We care about people, both adults and children, and that will always remain our main focus. I am very proud of the amazing team of people we have hired in the past two years, and it is great to see this team become a family. We implemented the nationwide program “Capturing Kids’ Hearts” before we even moved into the school two years ago. Once someone feels comfortable and safe, then they can learn and thrive. We do this by having a consistent way to greet each other with handshakes, looking each other in the eye and using positive affirmations.
Q: Tell me about your family and any hobbies you have?
A: My husband Scott and I have two children — Pretoria, who is a junior, and Tyler, a freshman, both at Ponte Vedra High School. We love to be together at their sporting events, competitive cheer for Pretoria and soccer for Tyler. We also enjoy hanging out at our beautiful beaches as often as we can. I like to jog and exercise whenever I have time. I definitely would call myself a jogger though, not a runner.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to enter the field of education?
A: My career happened a little bit by chance. I originally started as a communications major, but I was naturally drawn to kids. My middle school band teacher and my fourth and my fifth-grade teachers all stand out in my mind. I think about them and how they made me feel. I quickly realized that the classroom is where my heart is, and that is when I became an education major.
Q: Do you have a school motto or life philosophy that guides you?
A: In my office, I have a framed mission statement from my time as principal at Ocean Palms Elementary School. It reads, “Every day, everyone, everything matters.” This is important to me because you have to focus on everything — the intricate details and the big picture — or something will get lost. We are responsible for the growth and development of our children, and I feel like people are chosen to do this profession. Our motto for Palm Valley Academy this year is “I can, I will, I must.” And I like to sign everything with a saying that I borrowed from another administrator and mentor, “Until next time, be well.”
Photo courtesy Jessica Richardson
Jessica Richardson and family.