Guest Column

St. Johns County schools wrap up exceptional year


Friday, May 24, marks the completion of a great school year. While the last semester of school is marked by the rigor of course completions, it is also a time of great fun!  

It is so rewarding to celebrate the hard work, academic accomplishments, skills acquired, creativity and character of our students! One of the many ways we do this is through our Character Counts! program. This program is an educational framework to teach the universal values of the pillars of Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. Character Counts! improves the lives of the adults who teach it, the communities that embrace it and the students who make better choices as a result.  

Each of our schools conducts ceremonies to recognize students for their character throughout the year. It is one of the highest honors our students receive. On April 25, our school district hosted the American Youth Character Counts Awards to celebrate a senior and junior student honoree from each high school in our county. From Ponte Vedra High School, Benjamin Burk, Vivianna Hynes, Mya Richards, Madison Schemitz, Dean Batelli, Jack Brady, Maia Geronimo, Elizabeth Gottschalk, Shadhvi Gowrisankar, Victoria Joseph, Nicholas Storm and Ella York were honored. From Allen D. Nease, Demarco Blackmon, Amber Fields, Daniel Kurian, Kendra Lay, Dominic Cigliano, Pranav Devanand, Stella Gourd, Aiden Kennedy, Sophia Lindsay, Paul Rukab, Ruhi Shanbhag and Raahee Singh were award winners. Our District 4 student athlete honorees, who display the pillars of character on and off the field, were Richard Circelli from Ponte Vedra High School and Brody Haeussner from Allen D. Nease. Our students who were recognized chose a mentor (many of which were our wonderful teachers) that had influenced them to be the person they have become and share why that person was chosen. It was an incredibly special and powerful evening, and we are so grateful to THE PLAYERS for being the major sponsor of this important program in our county. 

Nease High School’s award-winning Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (NJROTC) held a well-attended Military Signing Day on May 1, where 15 students received military scholarships. Chief Warrant Officer Michael Donato shared with those in attendance that Nease High School’s cadets led the nation in most military scholarship awards. In addition, the U.S. Air Force representative stated that Nease was the only high school to have three students receive the Air Force’s $500,000 scholarships. Our NJROTC was again, this year, selected as the Most Outstanding Unit In Area-12.

Our current student population is 51,910 students. First Coast Technical College has an enrollment of 614 students. Despite budget cuts, we continue to hire great teachers and great support staff. Our areas of highest need include instructors in Exceptional Student Education, math and science instructors, bus operators, paraprofessionals and custodians.  

Lisa Knuze, our principal of Allen D. Nease High School, is retiring in June. She has served our community in several leadership positions over the years, including as assistant principal at Nease and for the opening and beginning years of Ponte Vedra High School, as well as principal at Switzerland Point Middle School. We wish her the very best as she moves to be closer to family.

We are happy to welcome Gina Foncesca as our incoming principal at Nease. She brings a strong high school background and familiarity with our community. Gina also served as assistant principal of Ponte Vedra High School, principal at Freedom Crossing Academy and worked at our district office as director of Secondary Education.  

In August, we look forward to opening our two new K-8 schools, Lakeside and Trout Creek academies. Our new K-8 in the Rivertown community is expected to open for the 2025-26 school year, followed by two additional K-8s in 2026-27 in the Silverleaf and Nocatee communities. 

Over the summer, our Student Services department will conduct training for the Positive Behavior Improvement System (PBIS), a program that provides a proactive approach to school safety and behavior. Currently, PBIS is in 24 of our schools and will expand to four additional schools in August, including Alice B. Landrum Middle School.

As this school year finishes, I would like to thank our awesome students, wonderful teachers and staff for the important work they do each day. Thank you to our parents, guardians, volunteers, business partners for enriching each of our schools. And thank you to our community for supporting our traditional public schools.

Lastly, I would like to congratulate our 2024 high school graduates and wish them the best in their future endeavors. I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable summer!