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Palm Coast Thursday, Apr. 15, 2021 6 months ago

What do dad jokes have to do with the graduation rate at Matanzas High School?

Q+A with Principal Jeff Reaves: on relationships, discipline and gratitude.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

Jeff Reaves has a secret weapon as principal of Matanzas High School: dad jokes.

“Why couldn’t the bike stand up?” Reaves said during an interview with the Palm Coast Observer in March. “It was two-tired.”

What’s the reaction he gets from students?

“I like the moans and groans,” he said with a laugh. “And they do, too.”

Relating to students has always been one of Reaves’ goals as principal. When he was a child, his principal knew the students by name. Having a dynamic example at that age of his life was a factor in his decision to go into education leadership after working for Florida Power and Light for more than a decade, and then becoming a pastor and starting a church (in Edgewater).

"I look at it like banking: You have to make deposits in people before you can make withdrawals."

JEFF REAVES, on positivity in relationships

Jim Tager, who was assistant principal at Deltona High School at the time, hired Reaves to his first teaching job 15 years ago. Then, Reaves went on to become a principal at the elementary and middle school levels in Volusia before becoming the Matanzas High School principal in 2017.

While he was principal, Edgewater Public School became the first elementary school in Florida to be certified by Advanc-ED in STEM.

As part of our principals and pastors series, Reaves spoke with the Observer about leadership, the pandemic and “gratitude walks.”


How is being a principal similar and dissimilar to being a pastor?

That background allows me to be more reflective, focus a little more on relationships.

I had a mentor who told me once, “When you have time to make decisions, take it. Because you don’t always have that luxury.”

What is something parents can do today to help their teenagers?

Listen. This group of students struggles to express themselves. You may not agree with everything they’re saying. But as a parent, the one thing I always did with my children is make sure we keep the lines of communication open. The worst thing that can happen is that disconnect, and you have no window into their lives.


How do you know where to draw the line between students having fun and when they need to get disciplined?

I look at the circumstances. Is someone being harmed? Is there malice? Oftentimes, young people do things and they think it’s funny, and maybe it’s not, and it’s a teaching moment. I help them think, “What might we do differently?”

In high school, people are trying to get an idea of who they are, and we have to create a safety net to give them the opportunity to make mistakes and grow. So there has to be balance, though there are certainly things that cross a line and have to be addressed.

Most times, I redirect. If there’s a situation, instead of correcting them, I’ll give them a task and say, “Can you do this for me?” I try not to come from a position of authority; I’m trying to treat them as they’re becoming adults. Often times, the kids are great and will say, “Oh, sorry, Mr. Reaves.”

That redirect goes a long way into building relationships. Students feel like, "He’s listening."

I look at it like banking: You have to make deposits in people before you can make withdrawals. There is a time and place for both. If we’re not making positive deposits in staff, students, community, then when things happen and you have to make withdrawals, it can be challenging because you haven’t invested.


What is Matanzas doing to increase the graduation rate?

We graduated 95.3% of our seniors last year. I only had three students that graduated under the COVID graduation code. Everyone else earned their graduation that they worked on throughout their years in high school.

We have a dashboard that we monitor. And we meet every Monday morning as a leadership team, and we spend 20-30 minutes talking about our seniors.

I think our grad rate was 81% or 82% when I arrived in 2017.

I stressed to the leaders that we can talk about numbers all day long, but we went from talking about numbers to names, to focus on them as people.


Does Matanzas have a brand? How do you improve school spirit?

We call the school The Ship. We’ve worked very hard on the branding, the logo, Facebook, Twitter accounts, the front office. But school spirit is not just colors and activities — it's to help keep students enthused and engaged, to help toward graduation. Everything’s connected.


What are the positive functions of social media at Matanzas? What problems do they cause?

I think it’s true of anything: There can be problems if not monitored. We watch the messaging closely; we make sure it’s positive. I think that goes a long way.

We try to make sure there’s a good cross representation, whether it’s our Kiwanis Seniors of the Month, the arts, athletics, Key Club, Interact — all those things play a part in communicating to the community what we’re doing.


Why is it important that the community knows?

The residents need to know that students are making positive choices, making a difference. It goes a long way to fight negative stereotypes of young people. When Kiwanis or Rotary members see our students, they’re always amazed at what they’re doing.


Are the arts worth investing in?

Absolutely. I think whenever someone learns and grows, there’s value, not just to that person but to our society and community. It’s important that we expand opportunities and not limit them when it comes to education, be that the arts or other degrees.


How has the pandemic changed Matanzas forever?

We may not know the results for some time. I think people have learned and explored that they have options of how their instruction takes place. There’s also been a better understanding that brick and mortar does matter, that it’s important to have schools where students come together. It’s not for everyone — to be online.

When you consider this shift that occurred so dramatically, I think the district does an exceptional job of pivoting.


You said on the podcast “Focused on Flagler Schools” that teachers need to take time for themselves. What do you do when you have time for yourself?

I read biographies, historical books, education, business books. My last novel was “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” I typically will read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” every year.

I also value getting on my boat and relaxing with my family and unplugging.


The last time I interviewed you was after the Parkland shooting. How has school security changed since then? Are we still on high alert?

It’s an evolution. We are always reflective as we walk through campus, looking at things, being aware. I don’t walk the same path twice. I’ll walk the perimeter; I’ll go outside the fence and walk. We talk about safety and security every Monday at that leadership meeting as well.

Our two school resource officers are phenomenal.

There are moments that we are mindful of: When students move, we move.


Before you started at Matanzas, you were named Florida's Innovative Principal of the Year by the Florida Council of Instructional Technology Leaders. What innovations are you planning next?

We established our law and justice flagship, and next is cyber security, a very innovative field.

Brian McMillan has been editor of the Palm Coast Observer since it began in 2010. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children. Email...

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