After serving in Naples High’s administration for the past four years, principal Darren Burkett is leaving his job after being promoted to work as the Executive Director of School Leadership at the district. Taking his place will be Ellen Keegan, who was previously Lely High School’s principal.
Since his first day as principal, Burkett had the goal of helping students feel safe and cared for in their classrooms, while creating strong academic programs to help them be the best that they can be.
“My goals were to help make sure that every student felt connected to the school and to help make sure that students understood that expectations were good and meeting a standard was a positive thing,” Burkett said.
At the same time, he wanted students to understand that establishing proper expectations for education is necessary for personal development.
High schoolers often face many difficulties in both their academic and personal lives, but Burkett believes that students have what it takes to overcome them. His work at school was centered around building teenagers up, and his encouraging and positive personality certainly helped students realize their true potential.
“I think it’s natural for any teenager to want to take the easy route, that’s natural for any adult in the same way,” Burkett said. “But I also think it’s important that folks recognize that they need structure and expectations. That encourages and motivates them to do better. So, what I wanted to do here was maintain the expectations that were in place and improve them in certain areas, little spots here and there and just a little bit at a time, so we can continue to grow as a school.”
During his time at Naples High, Burkett has shared many memorable moments with students, from Friday night football games to sharing jokes on the school news. However, he has also endured numerous difficulties, like having a flood his first week of being the principal and then experiencing Hurricane Irma two weeks later. Three months after that, panic and chaos ensued in schools across the country as the Parkland tragedy unfolded. Just recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented its own set of challenges.
While reflecting on these significant moments when disasters struck, he admires the strong connection of the Naples High community that helped everyone push through such brutal hardships.
“The one thing that comes to my mind is how resilient students, staff, faculty, administrators [and] even our parents have been through each one of those ordeals,” Burkett said. “We’ve realized that there’s a challenge, we’ve come together. I think we’ve done really well considering all of those challenges.”
When asked about what his greatest joy was while working at Naples High, Burkett explained his delight at seeing students succeeding and reaching their dreams.
“The greatest joy is always when you see great things happen for young people, and that’s why we’re here, whether it’s graduation ceremonies, award ceremonies, some kid who makes first trumpet on the band or a game winning goal,” Burkett said. “You can see how it affects the individual, and you see them maturing before your eyes. Those are all fantastic. It’s everything, a student who gets on stage and performs for the theater, or a student who creates a piece of art that they’ve been working on for months and they finally get it to the way they want it.”
His support through the years has motivated students to persevere and learn from their mistakes, helping the campus be a place of success, where each individual has the opportunity to grow. He says that these can be seen in everyday situations, like when students write an essay in class. They might feel frustrated when a teacher asks them to redo the assignment, but they feel so much more accomplished and proud of their work in the end.
“That small little victory and the student understands that time, effort [and] focus all pays off, and those are the highlights,” Burkett said.
Even as Burkett has had such a positive impact on Naples High with his uplifting message, he believes that the school also had a positive impact on him.
“It [Naples High] has given me hope,” Burkett said. “It reassured me that there are a lot of great people in the world. We have 1,800 students and 3,400 parents involved in the school. So many different people just in the community: business partners and different groups that we work with. Everywhere I go, I meet fantastic people, people that care about other people and want to do the right thing. It’s reassuring. You meet someone and you’re like ‘Wow, what a good person’ and that inspires you to do better.”
As he gets ready to leave campus, Burkett is looking forward to moving forward with his educational career. His job will involve collaborating with high schools and assisting in putting together administrations.
“I’ll be responsible for leadership development,” Burkett said. “What that means is I will work with all of the high schools across the county and work with their principals to help them build their administrative teams and implement things at their building. In addition, I’ll also be responsible for creating a pipeline for people to become administrators and to become principals.”
What he will miss most about Naples High, he said, are the students.
“I feel as though I have strong and positive relationships with all of the employees here and I like to try and do that with as many students as I can,” Burkett said. “I try to be as positive as I can and all the time. I think ultimately that is what wins out: being a positive person, having a can-do attitude and helping others believe that they can be positive and accomplish anything. Those student interactions I would say are what I’ll miss most.”
Burkett will continue his message of having a positive mindset, the importance of hard work and how we could all be a little kinder to others. As he has his last day at Naples High this Friday, he has one final message to his Golden Eagles.
“Anything can be accomplished through hard work.”