Don Gaetz and Frank Fuller first crossed paths in 1994. Fuller was principal at C.W. Ruckel Middle School in Niceville. Gaetz, who had recently moved his family back to the area, was interviewing middle school principals to determine where to send his children, Matt and Erin. Two years later, Gaetz and Fuller found themselves working together on the Okaloosa County school board — Gaetz as chairman and Fuller as lead principal.
After Gaetz was elected superintendent of Okaloosa County schools in 2000, he brought Fuller on as his assistant superintendent.
Gaetz and Fuller set out to transform their school system into one of the top-rated in the state. Gaetz, a retired health care executive, slashed non-essential jobs in the central school office and outsourced the building of classrooms, a move that saved time and $8 million.
Fuller, meanwhile, had more than two decades of experience as an educator and a daringness that impressed Gaetz. The former high school economics teacher had in 1999 co-founded a 500-student K-8 charter school. He later created a “blended school” partnership with home schooling families that allowed home schoolers to access public schools on a part-time basis. “Frank was the guy who dreamed things that hadn’t happened yet and then he made them happen,” says Gaetz.
One of their biggest successes was the creation of the first Choice Institute, which allows students to simultaneously earn diplomas, college credit and national industry certifications at no cost to their families. The program eventually became a model for the state and nation.