Leading by example
BGSU alumna Dr. Rachel Shelley ’94 named Florida’s top principal
By Anne-Margaret Swary
For decades, Bowling Green State University's education programs have been turning out exceptional educators who go on to impact lives around the nation. Dr. Rachel Shelley ’94 is one of those proud graduates, and her exceptional work as a high school principal recently earned her the title of Florida Principal of the Year.
The award, presented by the Florida Department of Education, recognizes outstanding school leaders for contributing to increased student performance, safe learning environments and successful partnerships with parents and community members. With more than 28 years of experience in K-12 education, Shelley has been praised by her colleagues for her dedication to helping every student succeed and for relationship-based leadership.
“When I found out I was being nominated, I was surprised and I was humbled,” said Shelley, who graduated from BGSU with a master’s degree in special education before earning her doctorate in leadership from Argosy University. “But really, this award is not about me. I believe it’s a testament to the hard work we do – and when I say ‘we,’ it’s the faculty and staff, parents and people in the community who support our initiatives to help our students succeed.”
More than 70 percent of students at Booker High School in Sarasota, Florida, where Shelley is principal are considered economically disadvantaged, and as a result, she has spearheaded a number of programs to create a culture of college and career readiness.
Among them is mandate that every student has a post-secondary plan that helps them explore their goals after high school and create concrete steps to help them achieve those goals.
“If we don’t prepare our students to transition so they can work above minimum wage, that vicious cycle of being economically deprived will continue,” she said. “When you tell an economically disadvantaged student to dream big, what does that mean? We have to show them what it means to be college and career ready.”
Shelley’s own background gives her unique insight into the struggles these students face. She grew up in low-income housing in the area, and it was through the mentorship of one of her teachers that she realized the importance of a high school diploma, setting her on a trajectory to become an inspirational teacher.
Shelley has made it a priority to create a nurturing, inclusive environment. She believes once strong relationships are built with the students, the academic pieces start to fall into place.
Shelley’s leadership strategies have helped raise the percentage of students both receiving diplomas and completing the FAFSA. The school also offers extra assessments to determine college-readiness, as well as providing SAT and ACT services in the middle of the day.
“I want my students to have the same opportunities that students from more affluent families and communities have,” Shelley said.
She’s also sought student scholarships from philanthropists in the community to help students with lower GPAs who are often overlooked.
“There is not a lot of scholarships available for those students,” she said. “I wanted my students to know that they could excel and we were going to invest in them. I have put all of my wisdom, strength and connections into that.”
For Shelley, the greatest reward is not honors such as principal of the year; it’s the success stories of her students.
“I get so excited, and it becomes tear-jerking, when my students succeed,” she said. “I love hearing they’ve been accepted into the college of their choice, or when they come back to visit a few years later to tell me about an exciting job or personal accomplishment.”
For her, this award is less about celebrating her achievements and more about the platform it has given her to highlight strategies for helping disadvantaged students thrive.
“It shows others that when you have kids who are economically disadvantaged with very high expectations and support systems built in place, they can be equally successful,” she said. “And I love showcasing that and how we can defy the odds and beat the statistics.”