Meet the third class of Governor’s Academy for School Leadership fellows

This past weekend, 26 aspiring principals from across the state begin participating in the third Governor’s Academy for School Leadership (GASL). First announced by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in late 2013, GASL is a partnership between the state of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and local school districts to build a pipeline of highly-trained school principals and ultimately improve school effectiveness and performance and unlock educational opportunities for all students. Each assistant principal selected for the one-year fellowship has been paired with an experienced principal mentor. In addition to training sessions one weekend a month, a week-long summer institute at Vanderbilt, and participants will intern three days a month at his/her mentor’s school. Upon completion of the academy, participants will be expected to pursue placement as a school principal in their district or region.

Meet the third class of GASL fellows:

LaToya Avery

LaToya Avery is an assistant principal at Drummonds Elementary School in Tipton County. She has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Elementary Education. She is also licensed in Counseling and Administration. LaToya got married on June 10, 2017, she was appointed to the Carl Perkins Advisory Committee, and she is now proud to be a GASL fellow!                     


 Merissa Baldwin                                                                       

Merissa Baldwin currently serves as the Assistant Principal of Instruction for grades three to five at Aspire Hanley Elementary School in the Achievement School District. She received her undergraduate degree from Rhodes College and a master’s in Urban Education from Union University through The Memphis Teacher Residency Program. She is most proud of working with a great team of teacher leaders, being selected for the 2018 GASL cohort, and her new marriage.

Andrea Beaubien

Andrea Beaubien is the Assistant Principal at Dickson Elementary School in Dickson County. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lipscomb University and a Master of Education degree from Trevecca Nazarene University. Mrs. Beaubien has recently been selected as a fellow for the Governor’s Academy of School Leadership, where she will have an opportunity to learn about transformative school leadership in the state of Tennessee. Mrs. Beaubien is a founding member of a professional book club for elementary administrators in Dickson County. She has also recently visited her nineteenth country and has only ten states left to have visited all fifty in the United States.

Jacob Bellissimo

Jacob Bellissimo is in his first year as an assistant principal at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson County. He is the fourth generation in his family to be an educator. He received his bachelor’s degree from Carson-Newman University, where he played football for two years before he realized his scholarships were academically based. Then he got his master’s degree from Rocky Top, half of it online and the other half in class. He has raised two boys and a barn to boot. (He still dreams about that!)

 Amanda Brabham

Amanda F. Brabham is the assistant principal at Thelma Barker Elementary School in Jackson, Tennessee. She has an M.S. in Educational Leadership from Arkansas State University, an M.S. in Health Science from Mississippi University for Women, and a B.S. in Elementary Education and Special Education from Mississippi University for Women. She is honored and proud to be a fellow in the third class of the Governor’s Academy for School Leadership. She is excited about the great opportunity to learn and grow professionally and to continue to have an even more positive effect on student success and achievement. Her dedication and passion are constantly displayed in her role as assistant principal. She is committed to student growth and learning, and her goal is to become a more effective leader who empowers others to succeed. She is most proud of her loving family and their continuous support. Her husband and two children motivate her to be the best person she can be every day.

Melissa Brock

Melissa Angela Brock is employed by the Claiborne County Board of Education as assistant principal at H.Y. Livesay Middle School in Harrogate, TN. She has a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education (K-8) and a master’s in Administration from Lincoln Memorial University. She has been married to her husband of 18 years, George, and they have two children, Allyson and Cooper Brock. In 2014-2015, while serving as assistant principal, H.Y. Livesay Middle School was recognized as a Reward School by the Tennessee Department of Education. In 2016, the H.Y. Livesay administration was selected to present at the SCORE Prize Summit in recognition for its five year growth and achievement. Melissa was honored to be a presenter.

Heather Byrd

Heather Byrd is an assistant principal at Eagleton Elementary in Blount County Schools. She has earned an Ed.S. in instructional leadership. In addition, she is on track to complete her Ed.D. in the spring of 2018.


Beth Cohen

Beth Cohen is an assistant principal at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport City Schools. She was a social studies teacher prior to becoming an administrator and is in her seventh year as an assistant principal. Beth holds a bachelor’s degree from East Tennessee State University (2006) with certifications in 7-12 History, World Geography, Economics, and Government. She completed her Master of Education degree in Curriculum and Instruction from King University in 2009. Additionally, Beth obtained her Educational Specialist degree in Educational Administration and Supervision from Lincoln Memorial University in 2011. Beth received the Kingsport City Schools World Class Award in 2016 and has served as a presenter for the Niswonger School Leadership Institute since 2016. Beth and her husband Matt have two little boys, Samuel (4) and Seth (2).


Clint Dowda

Clint Dowda was born and raised in Sullivan County, Tennessee where he returned to teach after graduating summa cum laude from Middle Tennessee State University. He has since received his Master of Arts and Educational Specialist degrees from Union College. Mr. Dowda taught fifth grade for ten years and is currently in his third year as the Assistant Principal at Bluff City Elementary School in Sullivan County. At school, he is most proud of his work around relationship-building and promoting positive school culture. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time and traveling with his wife, Alyson, who is also an educator. Together they are active members and youth sponsors at their church. Mr. Dowda is also an avid runner and has finished two marathons and more than a dozen half-marathons.

Chris George

Chris George is an assistant principal in Rutherford County. He earned his B.A. in History with a minor in Political Science and a concentration in Spanish. He earned his master’s from MTSU and has been an assistant principal for three years. Chris and his wife Danielle have three children: Amelia (5), Ava (4) and Cooper (4). Besides being a husband, father, assistant principal and GASL fellow, Chris has also been involved in coaching youth and middle school sports since he was 15.

 Heather Harris

Heather is the instructional facilitator at Middleton Middle/High School in Hardeman County. She obtained her B.S., M.Ed., and Ed.S. from Union University and her school counselor endorsement from UT Martin. Heather is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Leadership and School Reform. She has been an educator for 17 years and taught both first and third grade before moving into her current position. She believes her first greatest accomplishment was marrying her husband, and her second is being a mom to her three children.

Jordan Hughes

Jordan Littleton Hughes is an assistant principal at Boones Creek Elementary School and Boones Creek Middle School. This dual responsibility will continue until fall 2019 when a new K-8 school will be built. She has a Master’s degree in Instructional Leadership from Lincoln Memorial University and is currently working on a specialist degree in Curriculum and Instruction. Washington County is near and dear to Jordan’s heart.  She is a product of Washington County Schools, which is now the district that she serves. Jordan’s family is the most important part of her life. She has identical four-year-old twins named Cannon and Cade, and lives with them and her husband across the way from Doe River Gorge, where they all wake up each day to a beautiful view of the mountains. Jordan is also very proud of becoming an assistant principal and being selected as a GASL fellow.

Jeni Irwin

Jeni Irwin is currently an assistant principal at Anderson County High School in the Anderson County School District. She completed her undergraduate degree in middle school education in 2008 from the University of Kentucky, where she managed the gymnastics team. She then completed her master’s degree from Lincoln Memorial University in 2010 and her educational specialist degree in 2011 in educational leadership and supervision. Jeni taught Algebra for eight years and is currently in her second year as an assistant principal. Jeni was voted Teacher of the Year in 2013. She is currently the “new high school teacher mentor,” a role in which she supports and grows new teachers across Anderson County. Jeni is married to Adam Irwin, a custom home contractor, and is a proud mom to four girls. 

Josh Johnston

Josh Johnston is an assistant principal at Mt. Juliet High School in Wilson County, Tennessee. He began his career in special education and has worked in all facets of special education within his school. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Cumberland University, a Master of Arts degree from the University of Alabama, and a Specialist in Education degree from Tennessee Technological University. Before going into administration, Mr. Johnston coached football and baseball and was the P.A. announcer for basketball at MJHS. He has been married for 17 years to his wife, Kelly, who is also an educator. They have two daughters, Evie and Chloe. As a teacher, he was part of the team that formed the first RTI program, and he now leads it as an administrator. Mr. Johnston also implemented the first Crisis Intervention Program for students with emotional disturbances at MJHS. Currently, Mr. Johnston is responsible for piloting the first anonymous bullying reporting system at Mt. Juliet High School.

 Travis Miller

Travis Miller is the assistant principal at Orchard Knob Middle School in Hamilton County. He holds a bachelor’s degree in P.E., K-12 Instructional Leadership from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, and a master’s degree in Instructional Leadership from Tennessee Tech. He was part of the Leadership Fellows cohort in 2013, and is a graduate of the Principal Leadership Academy (sixth cohort) through the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga.

Milton Nettles

Dr. Milton Nettles serves as an assistant principal at Cumberland Elementary School of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. He obtained a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Alabama, an M.Ed. in Teaching, Learning, and Leading from Lipscomb University, and an Ed.D. in Learning Organizations and Strategic Change from Lipscomb University. He is most proud of being a husband to Joy Nettles and a father to David Nettles. While serving as an assistant principal at Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School, Dr. Nettles was instrumental in implementing structures, systems, and processes that led to a three-fold increase in the number of third grade students who were reading at or above grade level. In his current role as assistant principal at Cumberland Elementary School, Dr. Nettles collaborated with the Nashville Chess Center to develop and implement the first advanced academics chess course within an MNPS elementary school. Dr. Nettles also serves on the Board of Directors for Preston Taylor Ministries, a nonprofit organization focused on the academic and spiritual empowerment of youth and families of the Preston Taylor public housing area.

 Josh Rogers

Josh Rogers is the assistant principal at Dyersburg Intermediate School, which includes grades three to five, in the Dyersburg City Schools system. He obtained his B.S. in Physical Education from Bethel University and his master’s in Educational Leadership from Arkansas State University. He has also completed an additional 30 graduate hours at Walden University. He and his wife, Kamela, just celebrated 10 years of marriage, and they have two children, Will (9) and Katherine (5).

 Jamey Romig

Jamey Romig is from Halls Elementary in the Knox County School system. She has been in education for 19 years as a teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal. This school year is her third year as assistant principal. She holds a Bachelors in Psychology and Masters in Elementary Education, both from the University of Tennessee. She obtained an Ed.S. in Administration and Supervision from Lincoln Memorial University. She was married this past May to Doug. She prides herself on being a lifelong learner with an Audible book collection that looks like a university course on leadership and professional growth. Additionally, she has served five of the last six years as a standards training facilitator in mathematics with the Tennessee Department of Education.

 Sharonda Rose

Sharonda is an assistant principal at Lakeland Elementary in the Lakeland School System. Prior to becoming an assistant principal, she worked in student services for Bartlett City Schools, where she was involved in numerous areas of student support, including providing alternative school services (such as home bound), monitoring and managing enrollment, and supporting schools with the implementation of discipline policies and procedures. Sharonda earned a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Memphis, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Leadership and Professional Practice from Trevecca Nazarene University. One of her recent accomplishments is the successful design and implementation of the Response to Instruction, Intervention, and Behavior (RTI²B) program in her school. Sharonda’s goal as a leader and an educator is to create a school culture that has high expectations for all students and to cultivate an academic program that promotes rigor and complexity.

Noelle Smith

Noelle Smith serves as an assistant principal at Greeneville High School in Greeneville City Schools. Her professional degrees include a B.A. from Milligan College in history, an M.Ed. from Tusculum College, an Ed.S. from Lincoln Memorial University in Administration and Supervision, and an Ed.S. from the University of Tennessee as a Reading Specialist. Prior to her work as an administrator, she was a history teacher, high school reading specialist, and district instructional coach. She also works with the Tennessee Department of Education’s Integrated Leadership Course facilitator team, has presented at the Niswonger Education Symposium and the Tennessee Reading Association Conference, and has worked as a Battelle for Kids Online Collaborative Contributor. Noelle’s family fuels her work, while reading and hiking are outlets for stress. She is thrilled to join the educational community of GASL and is eager to learn.

Vanessa Spoon

Vanessa Spoon is an assistant principal at Ripley Middle School in the Lauderdale County School System. She holds an Associate of Science degree from Jackson State Community College, a Bachelor of Science Degree in Elementary Education from Union University, and a master’s degree in leadership from the University of Memphis. This is her twenty-fifth year in education. Recently, she was selected as a fellow for the 2018 cohort of the Governor’s Academy for School Leadership (GASL).

Larry Staggs

Larry Staggs is an assistant principal at Springfield High School in the Robertson County School district. This is his second year as an administrator at SHS. Previously, he was a Spanish teacher at White House Heritage High School and Westmoreland High School. Mr. Staggs is a Nashville native who attended Glencliff High School, where he was a member of the orchestra. He was selected three times to the MTSBOA mid-state orchestra and twice to the all-state orchestra. After high school, Mr. Staggs attended Middle Tennessee State University on a music scholarship, where he majored in Spanish and minored in secondary education. He holds a B.S. from MTSU and a master’s in education from Lipscomb University in Nashville. Mr. Staggs is married to his wife of ten years, Nicole. They have one daughter, Aubrey, and they reside in White House.

Noelle Taylor

Noelle is a native of Nashville and has been working in the school district where she is not only an alumna, but mother of a current high school student and pre-K student. She began her journey as an educator in 2004 and has worked as a substitute teacher, classroom teacher, AVID and IB coordinator, literacy coach, and administrator. A long proponent of student equity and advocacy, Noelle has been trained by Erin Gruwell and is proud to be one of the original Freedom Writer Teachers and contributing author of Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers.

Stephen Walker

Stephen Walker, from Rucker-Stewart Middle School in Sumner County, holds a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. He has been married to his beautiful wife Amanda for 13 years, and they have two amazing kids, Austin and Emily. Besides the pride he has for his family, Stephen is also proud of the young men and women he has been able to mentor throughout his time as an educator.

Rachel Wasserman

Rachel Wasserman is currently working as an assistant principal at Loudon Elementary School in Loudon County. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, and a specialist degree in Educational Leadership with an endorsement in Leadership Coaching. Ms. Wasserman was named National Distinguished Assistant Principal of the Year for the state of Georgia in 2016. In addition, she was chosen to serve on the GaPSC Ethics for Leaders Advisory Committee in 2015. Ms. Wasserman is currently working on an Ed.D. from Vanderbilt University in Leadership and Learning in Organizations.

Christopher Winningham

Christopher (Bubba) Winningham works as an assistant principal at Algood Middle School in Putnam County. This is his third year as an assistant principal. He taught for seven years at White Plains Academy teaching Social Studies in grades 7-12. He has earned his B.S. in secondary education with a concentration in History and Government, an M.A. in Instructional Leadership, and an Ed.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from Tennessee Tech University. He recently completed his doctoral degree from East Tennessee State University in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. He is most proud of his family (his wife of 10 years, Laura, and two children: Maddox, who is two, and Baylor, who is six), earning his doctoral degree from ETSU, and the fact that he gets to be around great students and teachers daily while working in the greatest school district in the world. He is also proud that he gets to represent Putnam County in GASL.