DADE CITY — For 13 years, Leila Mizer has made Cox Elementary School her passion.
She has implemented program after program, scrambling and struggling with her staff to bring educational success to the school that serves predominantly poor Hispanic and black children.
"I've tried everything I know," Mizer said. "But we just keep toggling between a C and a D" in the state's accountability program. "The kids keep moving inches and not feet."
So when the final bell rings in May, the 57-year-old Mizer plans to step away from Cox.
"It's time for a fresh set of eyes," she explained Tuesday. "I don't want to stand in the way of progress."
Of all the schools in Pasco, Cox has perhaps struggled the most. It has earned a D grade from the state six of the past 10 years, and never has made adequate yearly progress under federal guidelines.
It's one of just two Pasco schools forced to restructure under the No Child Left Behind Act, and one of three county schools on the state's "corrective action" list (one step before intervention). Nearly 98 percent of Cox students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and the population is highly mobile.
Mizer has attempted for years to overcome these obstacles. But she said perhaps she's lost sight of the big picture while focusing on all the details.
She thought about moving on before this year began, but didn't want to leave the school in the lurch as it began restructuring. Now the time is right, she said.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she had conferred with Mizer several times about a possible change in leadership for Cox. And though she never forced the issue, Fiorentino said they came to a joint decision that Cox could benefit from having a new principal.
Mizer "has got a lot of skills and talents. We're going to utilize her in different ways," Fiorentino said.
The thought is to move Mizer into a district-level position dealing with issues involving low-income students. But until the budget is settled, Fiorentino did not want to commit her to a spot that might not exist next year.
The superintendent would not say who will replace Mizer, although she said she does have someone in mind. The right person will be someone who understands the needs of poor students, knows the research about how to achieve learning gains, and is familiar with Dade City and Cox, Fiorentino said.
Board member Kathryn Starkey said she respected Mizer's choice to step aside from Cox.
"Schools like Cox present great challenges. I can appreciate how difficult it is," Starkey said. "I'm sure she'll be greatly missed."
Board vice chairman Allen Altman, who lives in and represents Dade City, said he admired Mizer's decision, as it couldn't have been an easy one.
"It proves she cares about the students first and foremost. I respect her for that," Altman said, calling Mizer compassionate and a stable force in the community. "All I can say is, 'Thank you.' "
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.