- June 3, 2020
Colt Strausbaugh was having a tough second day of pre-K at Myakka City Elementary School during the last school year.
His mother, Kelly Strausbaugh, said her son wouldn’t stop crying and didn’t want to stay. She was a nervous wreck leaving him at school.
“It was a terrible experience that every parent dreads,” she said.
Strausbaugh calmed down after receiving a message from Principal Carol Ricks with a photo of Ricks with Colt.
“He was smiling and she said he was feeling a lot better and doing great,” Strausbaugh said. “It was the sweetest thing that she went out of her way to check on him. Knowing she treats the babies like they’re her babies, you feel like the school is empowered to care extra hard for their babies.”
When Ricks was announced as the School District of Manatee County’s 2022 Principal of the Year, Strausbaugh was elated.
“When I met her, you could tell her energy is contagious,” Strausbaugh said of Ricks. “I feel like she understands the community. I was like, ‘This is the principal that’s really going to do right by the school and right by the community. The minute I started talking to her, I just knew she understood how special the school is.”
When Ricks initially came to Myakka City in the 2009-2010 school year, she felt at home.
It was at a time when her family had moved from southern Georgia and was trying to find their place in Florida.
“I discovered Myakka and the rural lifestyle and the way their family values were," Ricks said. "My husband and I were like, ‘This is where we ultimately want to be.' Obviously, that was a lofty goal when you’re 30 and have to purchase land and all of that.”
Eventually the family found the property to build their home in Myakka City and moved to the area in 2013.
The principal position at Myakka City opened up in 2019. Ricks was unsure about taking on the position. She was happy serving as the assistant principal at McNeal Elementary with her son attending next door at R. Dan Nolan Middle School.
“It was one of those, 'if I don’t do it now, when will it ever come open?'” she said. “There was also the risk because I wasn’t just applying for Myakka. I was applying for other schools, too. People were like, ‘What are you going to do?’ It was just if I’m truly meant to be there, that’s where I’ll end up, and it all worked out. My supervisor still says it was one of the best placements they’ve ever done.”
Since being named the principal of Myakka City Elementary School, the school has grown.
When she started as principal in 2019, the school had about 240 students enrolled. Now after the School District of Manatee County completed redistricting for elementary schools, the school has about 100 more students.
Betsy Bickel-Perry, the assistant principal at Myakka City Elementary, sees Ricks as a role model for an excellent principal.
“She has a heart for the kids,” Bickel-Perry said. “She has a heart for teachers, for staff, for this community overall. It’s just that enormous heart that I think guides her in making her decisions when it comes to our students and the school.”
Throughout the school and community, Ricks has become known as a strong advocate for her students and staff.
Laurie Dupuy, a member of the Myakka City United Methodist Church administrative council, said Ricks is proactive for the community.
“She is so good about encouraging her staff,” Dupuy said. “She is very, very good at communicating with parents and grandparents.”
Any time Dupuy has reached out to Ricks to suggest an idea or share how the church would like to support the school, she said Ricks always has been open to her ideas and is appreciative for any support the community provides for the school.
Maya Hart, an English as a second language teacher and migrant liaison at Myakka City Elementary, said Ricks always is willing to listen and receive input from teachers and staff.
Hart said Ricks started appreciation days for teachers and staff such as Thankful Thursdays in November and 12 Days of Holiday Cheer.
“She dedicates all of her time to making everyone else feel good,” Hart said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the School District of Manatee County was moving to virtual learning, Ricks pushed for the district to provide hotspots to students as well as various locations students could go for Wi-Fi.
“One thing they don’t think about is that the internet out here is really a luxury,” Ricks said. “It was raising the awareness of how things work out here.”
Last year, Ricks worked with the PTO in bringing back the Harvest Festival, which Strausbaugh and Ricks said had become more of a fall dance in the past few years due to the pandemic, instead of a community-wide event.
When they were planning the festival last year, Ricks said she was nervous that people weren’t going to show up, but to everyone’s surprise, the event was so popular the parking lot was filled within 15 minutes of the event starting. The Harvest Festival returned to its roots of having music, games and activities for families and the community.
Ricks also has found ways to bring new opportunities to her students and staff.
In her second year at the school, Ricks knew the community wanted to find a way to have the school stand out in Manatee County and the state. Ricks worked with the district to start the state’s first agriculture science program at the elementary level. A barn was built on campus so students could go to an agriculture science class to learn about animal sciences, agricultural leadership and careers, agricultural history and more.
This year, Ricks has been working with the district to have a school bus housed at the elementary school that would be driven by school staff who underwent training.
“That truly came out of frustration,” Ricks said.
She’s also training her welsh terrier, Ruby, to be an emotional support dog for students and staff. Ricks and Debbie Veldkamp, the school counselor, have seen the benefits to having a therapy dog on site, but usually the dog has a handler that works with the school to schedule visits. Ricks said training her own emotional support dog will allow her to bring Ruby to the school whenever she wants and whenever needed.
“I started researching it and found that it can definitely be done,” Ricks said. “(Ruby) is coming in every day and using it as an incentive right now called Reading with Ruby. The kids that are the top reader for each class come in for 15 minutes to pick a story to read with her.”
Once certified, Veldkamp can use Ruby for individual or small group therapy.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, it was Ricks who told principals across Manatee County that some of her students had lost everything and the community needed help to recover.
Schools throughout the county immediately began collecting food, water, clothing and other essential items to donate to the Myakka City Elementary. Truck after truck filled with donations were arriving at the Myakka City Community Center.
Ricks is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help connect the agency with people in the community who need assistance after the hurricane.
“They’re struggling having the community apply,” Ricks said of FEMA. “They don’t feel the number of people that would be eligible and the number of applicants out here match. Everybody’s kind of figuring out that we, as a community, especially being so rural, don’t have access to the services that most of the schools in town do.”
Ricks wants Myakka City Elementary School to be a hub for the community to go to for various services.
She’s working with Manatee Technical College to someday provide education classes for adults to get their GED or to learn English as well as provide technical classes to learn different trades. She hopes the district can have the school become a school-based health clinic to provide medical care to the community.
“Ultimately, I have a vision and now it seems like one little piece seems to be happening every year,” Ricks said. ‘“It can be done. I never thought it would, but when you think about all the things that have happened in the past four years it is definitely not a goal that can’t be achieved.”