Jennifer Bellinger has been the principal of Oak Ridge High School for five years.
Jennifer Bellinger
Jennifer Bellinger, Principal of the Year for Orange County Public Schools, has been in secondary education for over two decades. (Photo by Jennifer Bellinger)

When Jennifer Bellinger found out she was Principal of the Year for Orange County Public Schools, she was sitting with a small group of friends, family and staff at Oak Ridge High School, watching the Stellar Awards announcement ceremony via YouTube. Due to COVID-19 making the ceremony a virtual event, more people were able to watch, and Bellinger says her phone began chiming with texts and calls immediately after the award was announced.

“It was an amazing feeling,” she says. “I just like to work. I love my kids. I love my staff. You don’t plan on being the principal of the year. You just work and then realize how much we’ve done as a team. Now it’s about us continuing to set goals for ourselves and looking at the next thing that we can do.”

When Bellinger isn’t leading a team of 180 faculty and staff members and helping the 2,400 students at Oak Ridge High School, she’s a student in the executive educational leadership doctoral program at UCF.

The program is designed for working school administrators, educators and other professionals who are seeking executive leadership positions in public education. Through the program’s cohort model, students progress through the program together, explains Daniel Eadens, associate professor of educational leadership and program coordinator. “Cohorts strengthen and support each other along the doctoral journey toward graduation. The cohort model has a much higher success rate as compared to programs with individual models where students work on their own.”

Bellinger’s classmates also watched the ceremony and celebrated the news when they got to class, cheering for her success, says Eadens.

Nominated by her supervisor and chosen out of all the principals in Orange County Public Schools, Bellinger says it wasn’t until she was writing down the story of her time at Oak Ridge that she realized just how much she and her team had accomplished over the past five years, like moving their school from a D to a B within two years.

“It’s an honor and a recognition for my staff members, too, because they stand beside me and they continue to encourage me to be better, to always think of new and creative ways to move forward,” says Bellinger, who began her 23-year career in education as a seventh-grade science teacher.

I learn something in class and come back to work so excited because I can apply it right now to my job.

Jennifer Bellinger

Bellinger joined the executive educational leadership doctoral program this past fall to continue evolving as an educator and as a leader. “Having that advanced degree is important to me because there are always things that I can learn,” she says. “It’s always about adding to my toolbox.”

The cohort model and evening classes fit with her needs, and she says the experience of her professors and her fellow peers offer another layer of education. “Jennifer is a great student, motivated and bright, and a compassionate and empathetic listener who cares about those around her. When she speaks, everyone listens closely. She is highly capable and easily accomplishes what she sets her mind to do, yet you may not instantly know it because she is very kind and humble and allows others to lead when they want so they can learn,” says Eadens.

The students in the executive educational leadership program fill a range of positions in all levels of education, and the experiences and knowledge that everyone brings to class are what makes the discussions that much richer, she says. “We don’t all experience life the same way, and I think that’s the great part about the cohort model,” says Bellinger. “I learn from each and every person that’s in the class.”

Bellinger says she has been able to apply what she’s learned in class to her job since the first day, including how she leads and interacts with her staff. “I’ve been able to reflect on my leadership style and the aspects that I can change that would make me a better leader,” she says. “I learn something in class and come back to work so excited because I can apply it right now to my job.”

After over two decades in secondary education, Bellinger is still eager to expand her reach and impact. “From the first day, I fell in love with the students and the experience of teaching, and I’ve never left. I saw opportunities for me to advance in a career where I could grow and help students excel, and that’s what it’s all about,” says Bellinger.