Dr. Steve Whitaker
Dr. Steve Whitaker
Dr. Steve Whitaker, Head of School
Dr. Steve D. Whitaker has served as the Head of School at The First Academy since July 2003. During his tenure, the school has advanced a bold spiritual formation agenda, experienced outstanding enrollment growth, and has witnessed remarkable scholastic achievements. Multiple capital campaigns led to major renovations and expansion of the Lower School, the building of a new Upper and Middle School, the opening of the Tennis Center, a renovation of the Boyd-Moline Library, a Black Box Theatre, a new $10.5 million Field House/Gymnasium Facility, and the addition of the Gather Space and Royal Eatery. The First Academy families have generously pledged over $55 million to fund these initiatives.
Dr. Whitaker has written on a variety of topics, including school culture, Christian living, generous giving, and Biblical worldview issues. He recently published a book entitled In God We Trust: Five Anchor Points for Turbulent Times. His past and present activities include serving on the ACSI Executive Board, FHSAA Board of Directors, FCIS Board of Directors, ABHE Board of Directors, and Charter Member for Council for Educational Standards and Accountability. In 2010, Dr. Whitaker founded Neighborhood Charter Schools, seeking to support urban churches in establishing charter schools for severely disadvantaged students.
After completing his Bachelor degree in South Florida, Dr. Whitaker received a Master of Education from MidAmerica Nazarene University and a Master of Arts degree in Education from the University of Louisville. He also earned his PhD from the University of Louisville in Higher Education Administration. He is married to Tricia and has three marvelous children (Amanda, Stephen, and Caleb).
Brian Rose, Assistant Head of School
Born and raised in Northwestern Pennsylvania, Mr. Brian Rose attended Hobe Sound Bible College and earned his Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Social Studies. He went on to earn a Master of Education Administration from Columbia International University. He began his educational career in 1985 at Jupiter Christian School in south Florida then served 5 years at the Whitefield Academy in Louisville, KY.
In July 2005, Mr. Rose became Assistant Head of School at The First Academy. Married to his wife, Debra, since 1984; they are proud parents of two TFA Alumni – Michael (2011) and Lyndee (2013).
Gissel Valois, Director of Strategic Initiatives
Gissel Valois has worked at The First Academy for more than 9 years. She currently serves as the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Management and Leadership Team. Mrs. Valois serves TFA in many ways, including assisting the Human Resources team with professional development and handbook management. Mrs. Valois supports many campus-wide initiatives and events; she also leads the Diversity task force guiding the responses of TFA in the areas of racial harmony and campus unity.
In August of 2021, Mrs. Valois led the implementation of the first ever food service program at The First Academy, Flik Dining services. The program has been a tremendous success and our students and staff are truly grateful to have fresh meals prepared and served on campus. Mrs. Valois oversees all of our campus catering requests and the day-to-day menu selections for our dining services.
Mrs. Valois earned her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a minor in Office Systems Management from the University of Montclair State. Prior to working at TFA, she worked as an Executive Administrator and Project Coordinator in the Margin & Risk Department for Merrill Lynch in New York.
Mrs. Valois and her husband Juan have been married for 17 years and are blessed to have two daughters. Both Brianna and Jianna are proud TFA students.
Will Cohen, Director of Athletics
Mr. Will Cohen was born and raised in Orlando and has been serving at The First Academy since June 2012. Mr. Cohen served three years as the Assistant Director of Athletics and Assistant Baseball Coach and now serves as the Director of Athletics.
Mr. Cohen spent seven years at TFA as a student, graduating with The First Academy’s Class of 2008. After graduation, Mr. Cohen received his Bachelor of Science in Sports Administration from Samford University in Birmingham, AL. From Mr. Cohen’s experience as a student and staff member; the teachers, coaches, and administrators have had and continue to have an immeasurable impact on his life. He is blessed to partner with elite coaches and staff to encourage our student-athletes to not only advance their athletic abilities but to hold to high academic standards and continue to develop their personal relationships with Jesus Christ.
Mr. Cohen believes that the students, families, faculty, and staff make TFA the best Christ-Centered schools in America.
Sarah Donovan, Senior Director of Advancement & Parent Relations
As the former Director of The Extended Educational Programs and Admissions Director, Mrs. Sarah Donovan served as the leader of The First Academy Preschool, The Classical School (hybrid homeschool program), and The First Hope (special needs program), and Admissions Department. More recently Mrs. Donovan worked as the Director of Global Programming at ASU Prep, where she cultivated global relationships and business partnerships. Mrs. Donovan was raised in the rolling hills of northern Pennsylvania, and attended Penn State University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Elementary and Kindergarten Education. She continued her studies of Early Childhood Education at the University Chichester in West Sussex, England. Mrs. Donovan earned her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Central Florida. She then went on to obtain a Masters in Educational Leadership and Supervision from Stetson University. Mrs. Donovan’s endorsements include Exceptional Student Education and English for Speakers of Other Languages.
Mrs. Donovan previously served in the Orange County Public School district for ten years as an assistant principal, curriculum and instructional coach, and classroom teacher. She was honored as one of the district’s ‘Teacher of the Year’ and also received the ‘You Make a Difference Award’.
Mrs. Donovan has a passion for sparking a love of learning and leading in students. She is honored to serve with a team who shares the same joy and dedication to serving children in Christ. Mrs. Donovan and her husband Hart are proud parents of their daughter, Elle, who attends at The First Academy Lower School. They enjoy spending time together boating on the water.
Dr. Shayne Grove
Ph.D, Colson Fellow
Dr. Shayne Grove
Ph.D, Colson Fellow
Dr. Shayne Grove, Upper School Principal
Dr. Shayne Grove arrived at The First Academy with eighteen years in public education. She began her career as a high school teacher and then spent three years as a Middle School Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction and her next ten years as an Elementary School Principal. In her role as a public school administrator, she earned the Middle School Administrator of the Year, PTA Principal of the Year, Elementary Principal of the Year, and the Minnie Woodruff Leadership Award. Dr. Grove received her Bachelor of Science degree in Business/Marketing from The University of Central Florida.
After completing her Master’s degree in School Leadership, she earned her PhD in Educational Administration at Capella University. Dr. Grove is an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University and Indiana Wesleyan University teaching brain-based learning, curriculum and instruction, classroom management, school culture, data and school improvement, and various educational leadership courses.
Dr. Grove and her husband, Scott, have been married for 26 years and are the proud parents of two TFA Alumni: Cassidy and Dakoda. Scott is the head varsity baseball coach and teaches Lower School PE at TFA. Dr. Grove loves working with high school students each day.
Leighann Harris, Senior Director Finance & Business Development
With 17 years of public accounting under her belt, Mrs. Harris joined the business office at The First Academy in 2012. She began her career as an auditor with the international accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP where she specialized in banking, manufacturing, and publicly-held companies. She then worked in local and regional public accounting firms where she specialized in not-for-profit and government accounting, auditing and tax compliance. Mrs. Harris earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting with minor in Computer Science from Oral Roberts University and is a certified public accountant in California and Maryland.
Mrs. Harris is married to her husband, Lt. Colonel Scott Harris, and is proud to serve beside him during his 28 years on active duty with the United States Marine Corp. After serving in many different duty stations across the United States, they are happy to be back in Florida where they were born and raised. She has three children who are all TFA graduates. Mrs. Harris says, “Being a part of The First Academy has been a tremendous blessing to me and my family and I look forward continuing to serve in advancing the mission here at TFA.”
Dr. Natalie Holter
Dr. Natalie Holter
Dr. Natalie Holter, Middle School Principal
Dr. Natalie Holter is a Central Florida native who has been working in education for the last 20 years. She joined The First Academy in 2011 as the 12th-grade English and AP Literature teacher. In this role, she inaugurated the Senior Thesis project, the capstone graduation project that asks students to find the intersection between God and seemingly secular topics. As a certified SAT/ACT expert, she also launched a number of test preparation initiatives to help students improve their scores. She was recognized as “Christian Teacher of the Year” in 2014.
In 2018 she transitioned to the Middle School, first as its Academic Dean and later as its Principal. In this capacity, she directs the daily operations of the division. Her primary focus is ensuring a strong academic foundation and healthy emotional/social development in order to lay the best groundwork possible for student success in high school. She also coordinates the Learning ie program, focused on providing accommodations for students with learning differences. Her passion is building supportive relationships with her students and mentoring faculty to be the best teachers they can be.
Dr. Holter earned her Bachelor of Arts in History from Yale University, her Master of Liberal Studies in Humanities from Rollins College, and her Doctorate in Education with a focus on Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Central Florida. She was also blessed to attend Oxford University for one summer on a scholarship she won to pursue a more in-depth study of English literature. She is the proud mom of two TFA students, one of whom has attended since Kindergarten and the other since pre-Kindergarten.
Jennifer Jackson, Lower School Principal
Mrs. Jennifer Jackson joined The First Academy in 2010 as the Learning-i.e. Coordinator. In this role, she facilitated enrichment classes for academically talented and gifted students with an emphasis on critical thinking and technology. Mrs. Jackson also coordinated accommodation plans for students with learning differences. In addition, she assisted with TFA’s initial application for accreditation with the Florida Council of Independent Schools as well as the Florida Kindergarten Council in 2012 and remains involved with the accreditation process at TFA. Before joining The First Academy, she served 13 years in Florida public schools. Her roles in both Alachua and Orange counties included the following: special education teacher, elementary education teacher, curriculum resource teacher, and reading coach. She draws from all of her previous experience in her current role as the Lower School principal.
Mrs. Jackson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education from Furman University as well as a Master of Education in Special Education from the University of Georgia. She holds endorsements in Gifted, Reading, and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Mrs. Jackson firmly believes that all students can learn and succeed in a loving environment with high expectations. She also values the importance that Christian education plays in partnership with church and home. Being in the Lower School classrooms on a regular basis is a priority for Mrs. Jackson and plays a critical role in her leadership.
In 2014, TFA faculty and families selected Mrs. Jackson as the Christian Educator of the Year. Her experience as a classroom teacher at TFA gives her a unique insight and passion for serving the students, teachers, and families in Lower School.
Mrs. Jackson and her husband Jay have been married for 25 years and are blessed to have two daughters. Both Sarah and Lauren have attended The First Academy since Kindergarten.