Home is where the Titans are

Principal Chenoweth gives insight of her new journey at University High School.

Savannah Upson

The Friday night lights beaming down on her, cheerleading coach Karen Chenoweth watches with pride as the Pine Ridge cheerleaders perform their routine. Chenoweth adores the spirited atmosphere in the football stadium and greets students. As an involved teacher on campus, Chenoweth realizes the importance of student-teacher relationships and school spirit.  She holds these values close to her and brings them with her as she returns “home” to University as principal.

As a DeLand High graduate, Chenoweth felt most at home in the West Volusia area, and enjoyed feeling the community throughout her years of teaching leading up to her arrival at University.

“I live over here on the West side and I like working in my community,” Chenoweth said. “I like seeing the kids at my school when I go to Chili’s, Walmart, Target, and different places.”

Throughout her 15 years of teaching social studies at Pine Ridge, Chenoweth threw herself into the culture of the school, balancing the roles of head cheerleading coach and Student Government Association senior class sponsor. With years of experience under her belt, Chenoweth recognized the importance of school spirit.

“It was a lot of fun to constantly think about what we could do for school spirit,” Chenoweth said. “It’s important for kids, and it helps other kids who are maybe not a involved to feel like, ‘what’s something I want to do and could get involved in?’”

After teaching at Pine Ridge, Chenoweth received a promotion to assistant principal for curriculum at University in 2010, where she experienced the early developments of the school, until her departure in 2015.

“I live in the area so we watched the school being built before there was even a ‘Rhode Island’ extension,” Chenoweth said. “When I got here there were still so many things that were still in boxes, furniture that had not been put together yet, and resources that needed to be in classrooms. There was a lot of work to do in that first year.”

Before returning to University, Chenoweth served as principal at New Smyrna Beach High School and Galaxy Middle School, until she received word of University’s current principal, Dr. Julian Jones’ transfer.

“This school has always felt like home to me, so this is where I ultimately wanted to be,” Chenoweth said. “When Dr. Jones moved and I applied for this position, I said ‘I wanna come home and be here.’”

With prior familiarity to the campus and staff, Chenoweth made a smooth transition. Her top priority focused on overcoming the challenges associated with COVID-19 to create a safe environment for students.

“It’s been a challenge to constantly be thinking about what the next activity or procedure is and then think about what that means for students,” Chenoweth said. “The goals for this year are student and staff safety and making sure that we all have a safe environment, students are wearing their masks and that we have good cleaning supplies in our classrooms.”

Chenoweth envisioned many changes for this year to improve school spirit and traditions, but those ideas halted due to COVID-19.

Savannah Upson

“The school spirit stuff in the courtyard was something I really wanted to do this summer, but that had to take a backseat because we had to spend so much time thinking about getting teachers trained, getting technology in, and the personal protection equipment we needed for each classroom,” Chenoweth said. “There’s been so many logistical things with that, so it’s become the priority, but I’m hopeful that we’re going to get into a routine pretty quickly now and things also settle down.”

Although priorities shifted, one goal remained the same for Chenoweth–ensuring that seniors receive the best last year possible. She worked with SGA to brainstorm new ways to honor seniors and make them feel special, and urged them to keep an optimistic outlook on this year.

“I think students just have to start thinking outside the box and talking together and saying, ‘hey, we want to do this, we want to do that, how can we make it work,’” Chenoweth said. “Throughout summer we had to meet through teams [and] socially distance around a big table, but it’s still trying to think of some things that we can do that make it feel special to [the students].”

Aside from overcoming challenges with COVID, Chenoweth envisioned a bright future for University.

“I’m pretty competitive, so I told our teachers I don’t like University being out of the top three of high schools in our county, because we’re very much similar to Deland and Spruce Creek,” Chenoweth said. “If we’re not in the top three of everything we’re doing, then I’m always trying to think about how to get us there. Whenever we have a bit of a struggle or a gap, I want to put my energy towards bringing the school and student success back up to that level.”

Chenoweth addressed one struggle: lack of traditions. As the youngest high school in Volusia County, University has the opportunity to develop new traditions.

“You might go to another school, and [traditions] are very evident, because that school has been there for 50 years,” Chenoweth said. “Students’ parents and grandparents went there, and we don’t have that yet. We can try a lot of different things that might be a little harder in other schools, because that’s not the way we’ve always done it. A newer school can say ‘let’s try it a little different this year’ and see if that’s the best way to implement a tradition.”

Chenoweth found reward in the simple moments she shared with students, and helping them through their own challenges.

“[The most rewarding part of the job] is when a student is really feeling like they’re frustrated or hurt, helping them to resolve that and feel like this is a safe, comfortable place for them to be,” Chenoweth said. “Resolving problems and helping people navigate their day is very rewarding. My job is to help people and that gives me a good deal of satisfaction.”

The challenges from COVID led Chenoweth to pick this year’s theme: United. She emphasized the importance of remaining one whole student body, despite being physically separated.

“The school is very fragmented because we have students that are on Volusia Online and Volusia Live at home and we have students that are here,” Chenoweth said. “[The theme ‘United’] was the idea that this is a challenge, but we’re going to work through it together. We will be united as Titans.”

With a year full of continuous changes and uncertainty, Chenoweth advised students to keep a positive mindset.

“This year will form who you are as a person going forward,” Chenoweth said. “Life is going to present ups and downs. I will tell you in my life, I have never seen an up or down like this one. But I would say to take this moment and go, ‘this is what life has given us, so what can we still do?’ It may not be exactly the way it always was, but it still could be special.”