When Debbie Davis heard she'd be the new principal for a high school in a coastal city in Orange County, she envisioned it to be an easy feat.
Shortly after she began adjusting as principal for Back Bay High School in Costa Mesa, Davis realized her role wouldn't be as smooth as she imagined.
"The school was based on pushing out packets of work for kids, there was a low graduation rate and most of the students were in independent programs," Davis said of the continuation high school within the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. "These students were only in class for three hours a day when it should have been longer."
Fifteen years later, Davis is ready to pass the baton onto a new leader as she plans to retire at the end of this school year.
The first few years were rough as she began transitioning the institution into a campus that fostered encouragement, praise and offered "sound instruction."
A few teachers who were used to their routine and weren't keen on making a transition in their teaching style left, Davis said. The district allowed her to personally interview candidates and hire new teachers.
"Packets are easy, but the kids are left without any instruction," Davis said. "To send home students with packets just wasn't a match. And (schools) aren't recognized if you're packet pushers."
School hours were extended from three to five hours, a new round of certificates were awarded to students for improved attendance and teachers met weekly to talk about their students and problems.
Supt. Fred Navarro said Davis is a "textbook example" of a transformative leader.
"She evolved the school into what it needed to be to ensure the success of students," Navarro said. "I wish her all the best in her well-earned retirement."
As an educator for 47 years, Davis said serving as principal for Back Bay has been the "highlight" of her career.
The school's atmosphere began to change, Davis said, as she noticed attendance rates picked up and students were engaged during instruction.
"Continuation high schools have a reputation for being 'the last stop,' " Davis said. "But it's changed now and we're productive and rigorous and get our kids into college."
Davis also received recognition for her leadership and earned the title of 2016-2017 California Continuation Education Assn. Region 10 Administrator of the Year.
As the school year comes to a close, Davis said she will miss "being around kids" the most.
"Kids help you keep in touch with what's going on in the world and that's something I'll always carry forward," she said.
The district is seeking input from parents on what they would like to see in the next principal. Parents can fill out an online survey.