Although Mill Creek’s Irene Nikitopoulos knew she wanted to be a teacher since she was a child, her path to becoming principal at Carlos E. Haile Middle School didn’t always entail a job in education.
For five years after graduating from college, Nikitopoulos served as an urban planner for Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County.
As a freshman at the University of South Florida, Nikitopoulos started a mentorship with transportation planning. She knew nothing about transportation planning, but she went with it because it was a paid mentorship.
Not long afterward, she changed her major to geography with a focus on urban planning.
When Nikitopoulos moved to Manatee County, she started using her background in urban planning to teach urban planning and geography to students at Manatee Community College.
In 2006, Nikitopoulos went on to become a substitute teacher and then a permanent teacher at Lakewood Ranch High teaching English and Advanced Placement geography.
“I finally found where I was meant to be,” she said. “I was meant to be in the classroom in front of students.”
Although not directly in the classroom, Nikitopolous will continue to find ways to teach and impact students as the new principal of Haile Middle School starting in the 2023-2024 school year.
“I have overwhelming enthusiasm to actually lead my community school because I lived in the community for 25 years,” she said. “Having the opportunity to have that grassroots community leadership is a chance of a lifetime.”
Nikitopoulos remembers driving past Haile Middle School every day as it was being constructed in 1997.
“I never dreamed I could be principal there,” she said. “Driving by it when I was in my 20s when I first moved to Manatee County to today where I’m actually the leader of the school is just remarkable to even think that was possible. It was perfect timing that the school (principal position) was available when I was ready to become a leader.”
Nikitopoulos is replacing Kate Barlaug, who will serve as principal at Dr. Mona Jain Middle School. This will be Nikitopoulos’ first year serving as a principal.
She has served as an assistant principal at Johnson K-8 School of International Studies as well as a curriculum specialist, dean and teacher. Nikitopoulos was awarded the 2022 Outstanding Assistant Principal Achievement Award for the School District of Manatee County.
Nikitopoulos currently is the assistant principal at Lincoln Memorial Middle School, where she has worked to launch the school’s medical program and robotics program while also expanding the school’s agriculture program.
“I’m excited to bring that enthusiasm to Haile,” Nikitopoulos said. “They have a well-oiled machine. They’ve had several successful principals at that school who have moved the school toward excellence, and I’d like to continue that. There’s no perfect school. We all can improve, but I’m looking forward to building on the spectacular leadership that’s been there in the past.”
As an advocate for career and technical education programs, Nikitopoulos said she wants to expand opportunities for students at Haile whether it’s expanding the school’s agriculture program or ensuring the school has the latest technology.
Nikitopoulos said she wants to build on the electives that are offered at the school and provide state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology.
“The career and technical education program at the district knows I’m one of their most vocal advocates at the school-base level,” she said. “I’m that person to say, ‘Hey, try out this program at our school.’ I will be the person out here making sure we have staffing for it, making sure it’s implemented well and getting students to enroll.”
She’s looking forward to the new opportunities that will come with the school’s more than $36 million renovation and 10-classroom, two-story addition.
“I’ve spent a long time under the mentorship of several successful principals, and I’m going to take all that experience and bring it to my own school where I can implement programs to help students succeed as well as make sure they go to high school prepared and excited about learning,” she said.
One of her mentors was Don Sauer, who once served as principal at Manatee High School, where Nikitopoulos served as a dean.
“He came from the perspective that I appreciated as a teacher and that was that teachers were always No. 1,” she said. “Your school is nothing without your teachers. That’s what I pride myself on. My job is to support teachers so they can do their job.”
Her favorite part of being an educator is going to work every day to make a positive impact on students and teachers.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.