Leadership Team

Head of SchoolSteve Whitaker, PhD
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).




Sarah Donovan, MEd, MEd
Senior Director –
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.


Shayne Grove, PhD
Upper School Principal, Colson Fellow

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. 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 Masters 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 over twenty years and are the proud parents of two TFA students: Cassidy and Dakoda. Scott is the head varsity baseball coach and teaches Lower School PE at TFA. Dr. Grove says, “Being able to share the TFA mission and vision with prospective families is an absolute joy!” She hopes to see you soon!


Middle School PrincipalNatalie Holter, EdD
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 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 that capacity, she directs 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.


Leighann Harris, Director of FinanceLeighann 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.”


Lower School Principal Jennifer JacksonJennifer Jackson
, MEd
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.


Upper School PrincipalBrian Rose, MEA
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).

  • Plan of Salvation

    Admit: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Pray: Lord, I admit that I am a sinner in need of a Savior.

    Believe: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

    Call: For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

    Pray: Lord, I believe that Jesus died and shed His blood for my sins. I believe this in my heart and not just my head. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

    Pray: Lord, I call upon You to save me from my sins. I confess and repent of my sins. I know that Your Son, Jesus paid my debt on the cross—a debt I could never pay despite all my good works—and I thankfully accept Your gift of eternal life in Heaven that His death makes possible.