Pasco Schools administrator wins statewide award

The Laker/Lutz News | By B.C. Marion | April 18, 2023

Pasco County Schools’ Amy Ponce has been named The Florida Association of School Nurses’ School Nurse Administrator of the Year.

She joined Pasco County Schools as a school nurse in 2013 and has been overseeing the district’s School Health Services for two years.

Ponce said while she has been singled out for recognition, it really belongs to her entire team.

“That award should go to them, I think, more than me. I appreciate all that we’ve accomplished in Pasco,” she said.

Ponce said she knew at an early age that she wanted to become a nurse.

“I just will never forget it. It was Mrs. Wood, she was my third grade teacher and she asked me —  and it was just something that I’ve always wanted to do.

“I love helping people and being invested,” she said.

Though she knew she wanted to be a nurse, she wasn’t sure what path she would take.

At first, she thought she would work in adult hematology and oncology, but that was before her last clinical was in pediatrics.

Within a half-hour in pediatrics, she thought to herself: “This is where I want to spend my life, in nursing.”

Of course, life had its own ideas.

Her family moved to Puerto Rico for a couple of years and she took a bit of a hiatus from nursing. Then, she worked in roles that delved into different parts of school nursing.

Next, she stopped nursing all together for a couple of years to care for young children.

Then her youngest child was born with a cleft lip and palate that required multiple surgeries, so she was focused on that.

After that, her husband lost his job and she went back to work, as a school nurse.

She said she chose that path because it fit into her life of being a mom.

After all of those twists and turns, though, she discovered that being a school nurse is truly her niche.

“This is what I love to do,” she said.

“The impact that we can have on children just far outweighs anything else that there could potentially be,” said Ponce, who worked at Cypress Creek Middle High School before becoming a district supervisor.

Just because she’s a supervisor, though, doesn’t mean she’s isolated in a district office.

“I can’t lead from behind a desk. I have to be a part of it, so I can see what’s happening,” she said. “I’m in schools. I help conduct health screenings. I go in and do clinic visits.

“They (her staff) know if they need to call me and I need to go in a school to help, then that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Ponce thinks that many people — including nurses working in different settings— do not understand what school nurses do.

“People kind of forget that children are diagnosed with some difficult, challenging medical conditions,” Ponce said. “It impacts their life at school.”

School nurses can help those children to have the same kinds of experiences as their peers.

“You know, it’s a game-changer.

“We can kind of help them navigate (their medical condition) in this (school) setting, but then it’s life skills that they take with them forever. Because this (medical) condition doesn’t go away,” Ponce said.

School nurses are on the front lines
Nurses working on school campuses played an invaluable role in helping to navigate through COVID-19.

And, when it comes to dealing with mental health issues, Ponce said, “It’s all hands on deck.

“Anxiety, depression, we would see — but not to the magnitude that we have now.

“I  think the last time I researched it, it said about 32% of our time was spent on mental health, in school health. I’ll tell you that it’s probably double that now.

“It’s scary to see what our children are having to confront and to do, and the challenges that lie in front of them. It’s great that we can provide those supports to help them get through their day,” she said.

“I got into this profession 12 years ago. My job looks nothing like it was, 12 years ago,” Ponce said.

“I think COVID sort of catapulted us into really looking at what our role was and the impact that we have,” she said.

It forced a closer look at the work school nurses do — and, at what things they needed to let go of, to address the issues of mental health.

During COVID, many children were home and weren’t socializing.

Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning poses for a selfie with school district nursing staff, including Amy Ponce, who is the district supervisor of school health services. (Courtesy of Amy Ponce)

When they came back to school, they needed to learn how to be in a social environment and learn again how to make friends, she said.

Plus, the pressures from social media on kids “are really surreal,” she said. “It’s amazing how one little thing can have a ripple effect.”

On top of all that are family stressors. For instance, when a parent loses a job that can lead to a family losing its home, everyone in the family feels the effect of that, she said.

Many children lack access to the providers they need, Ponce added.

To help address that, the Pasco public school district began rolling out telemedicine this year.

Students can stay in school and parents can stream in on the call, which provides an opportunity to address students’ basic needs.

“That’s been a great experience for us,” Ponce said.

To be a school nurse means to be in touch with the current environment and to learn new ways to address emerging trends, she added.

In Pasco public schools, health services are delivered by clinic assistants; by licensed practical nurses who work with medically fragile students; and by registered nurses, who provide another layer of care and service.

School nurses work in partnership with school psychologists, social workers and counselors, Ponce said. “We work together as a unified, multi-disciplinary team to really help students get through.

“We have a great program in Pasco. I have to give great kudos to Lisa Kern, who just recently left us, two years ago. She really catapulted us into the right direction for school health,” Ponce said.

There are challenges
“We need more time. We’re spread thin. It is difficult to always meet the need that’s in front of us,” Ponce said.

Remaining fully staffed is an issue, too.

“Our turnover has been high,” Ponce said. “It’s hard to keep nurses due to, I think, the pay, and the workload.

“I think a lot of nurses come in, I think anticipating this profession to be something that it’s not.

“I think they envision that they’re just putting Band-aids on, and looking at kids as they’re coming in.

“We depend very heavily on our clinic assistants, who are sitting in our clinics, to do that kind of work.”

School nurses, she said, “really are that care coordination piece. We educate. We train. We’re working with doctors. We’re connecting with resources,” she said.

At its core, school nursing is a profession that has its intrinsic rewards,” Ponce said.

Being able to touch students’ lives is gratifying, she said.

“I had a student that I worked with for four years. She struggled in high school.  There were just so many different components. She just never gave up. We walked the journey together. She graduated. She’s gone on to get her master’s. She’s successful in life.

“To get that card in the mail that says, ‘Thank you for never giving up on me,’ — that’s why we’re here,” Ponce said.

“I do it because I love to do what I do.

“This is my calling,” Ponce said.

Making a lifelong impression
A photograph in Amy Ponce’s office reminds her why she’s in school nursing.

Ponce now oversees health services in Pasco schools, but before she was promoted to her current role, she was the school nurse at Cypress Creek Middle High.

She was helping out in the clinic one day because a clinic assistant was out, when a call came in from the school’s field.

A student out there was not doing well.

Amy Ponce, center, stands with Lona Mazzeo and Sam Mazzeo. Ponce’s quick actions revived the student who collapsed and was unresponsive on a school field. Ponce used CPR and an AED to revive him. Ponce says this photo of Sam and his mom reminds her why she’s in this profession. (Courtesy of Amy Ponce)

Ponce began heading that way, with a trauma bag and wheelchair.

Then, another call came in: The student was unresponsive.

Ponce began running.

“We called 9-1-1.”

She and Tim Light, an assistant principal at the time, took turns administering CPR.

As she worked to revive the student, she recalls thinking: “We cannot lose you.”

She recalls telling the young man: “Let’s go.”

He remained unresponsive and she let him know that wasn’t an option.

“We can’t do this,” she told him.

“I remember trying to give Tim (Light) directions (on CPR). He was like, ‘Amy, you taught me. I know what to do.’”

When the AED arrived, it was applied immediately.

“He did not respond. We had to shock him once and he responded after that.

“He was never really awake when he was with me on the field,” she said, but he was breathing.

Ponce credits her team for getting the AED quickly to the field.

“The doctors were very clear. That’s really what saved his life,” she said.

The experience has left a lifelong impression on Ponce.

“He reminds me — and keeps me grounded — of why I’m here and what I do,” Ponce said.

What people are saying
Amy Ponce has been named the School Nurse Administrator of the Year for 2023 by the Florida Association of School Nurses.

She received a number of nominations for the award, including one from Tim Light, who was an assistant principal when Ponce worked as the school nurse at Cypress Creek Middle High.

He described her work as a school nurse this way: “She applied the necessary actions to address student medical needs whether it be a student discussed in our School Intervention Team, a student who was identified with multiple medical-related absences, a student in need of a medical care plan, a student in need of a safety plan, and/or a student in need of emotional, behavioral or mental support. Never did she falter and always, she provided the necessary means and resources to assist the student.”

He recalled an incident on Feb. 23, 2018, when Ponce’s skills saved the life of a 10th-grader who had collapsed on the field. She administered CPR and applied an AED to revive the unresponsive teenager.

Here are excerpts from other letters nominating Ponce for the statewide honor:

“Amy Ponce is the epitome of professionalism, dedication and optimism. During the COVID epidemic, she was on the front line representing the school district in the community at a crucial time. Her planning and input into the ever-changing landscape around COVID protocols was invaluable….

“Among her many responsibilities, she is tasked with leading a group of more than 50 members serving our school community of over 100 school sites …”
-Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County Schools

“Mrs. Ponce brings a laser-like focus on school improvement to every aspect of her work and has been instrumental in helping our district improve health services and enables us to provide differentiated assistance to schools and students, based upon need.”
-Melissa Musselwhite, Pasco County Schools’ director of school support programs and services

“Her (Amy Ponce’s) leadership ability is unquestioned, and her analytical and communication skills continue to lead our school health program to new heights with commitment and resiliency.”
-Angel Hernandez, Pasco County Schools’ student services senior supervisor

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