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Superintendent shoo-in close to reaching her goal

One year in the early 1990s, teacher Pete Oberg was helping to organize the homecoming dance at Lakewood High when misfortune struck.

Just six weeks out, the school discovered that the hotel where the dance was to be held had overbooked the date. Homecoming had always been held in a fancy, off-campus setting, but it was too late for that now.

Oberg remembers assistant principal Julie Janssen dousing the panic with a question: "Why have we always done it that way?"

With the money that would have gone to the hotel, the school dressed up the gym, upgraded the food and lowered ticket prices. Years later, Lakewood's homecoming remains in the gym.

Oberg, who has Janssen's old job at Lakewood, imagines she'll work in much the same way as Pinellas County's next school superintendent — going at problems by challenging time-worn assumptions.

"It was never about what's wrong; it was about what can we do to make it right?" he said, echoing others who know Janssen well. "She has a great way of looking at things not as road blocks but as opportunities."

After a four-month search, the School Board is expected to approve a three-year contract on Tuesday for Janssen, a 29-year veteran of the Pinellas system.

How badly did she want the job? In an interview on the eve of her superintendency, Janssen's answer contained shades of that long-ago question at Lakewood.

She said being superintendent had been a goal for 10 years, but it was fueled by a troubling realization. New generations of students were coming through the system with dramatically different reference points, yet schools had not changed their approach.

It nagged her, she said, as the children in her life cycled through Pinellas schools — her two sons, her two step-children, her nieces and nephews.

"So I started really trying to be creative in how we offer learning to the kids," Janssen said. "People got to know me because I talked a lot about it."

How could Pinellas schools be different a year from now under her leadership?

Janssen listed the ways:

• By 2009, school start times will be "more reasonable," especially in high schools, which now open at 7:05 a.m.

• Teachers will be encouraged to explore new methods, and mandates on classroom practices will be less rigid.

• The system will be less driven by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

• More students will graduate as high school principals focus more on potential dropouts.

• A proposal to decentralize the system by putting more decisions in the hands of schools will be well developed, with implementation starting in 2010.

Decentralization will touch the system in a number of ways, Janssen said. The public, she said, should look for new practices, such as alternative hours for high schools.

At some struggling schools, she foresees smaller classes, longer days and bonus pay to attract teachers.

Janssen also addressed the knock that she wouldn't be tough enough — that she'd be hard-pressed to challenge longtime colleagues. The criticism arose as the School Board debated whether to hire Janssen or one of two outside educators.

She described her style this way: "I believe in facing your enemy. Normally, if I can sit down with someone and give them my reasons and hear their reasons, we don't usually walk away mad. So (I don't) do what other people tell me to do. I haven't lived to this age by being a pushover."

When former superintendent Clayton Wilcox appointed her as his deputy in 2006, Janssen had been a high school principal for eight years and a rising star. Many longtime administrators wanted her to be his successor.

"I will not let her fail," Jim Madden, an assistant superintendent, told the School Board this week. He said he's seen Janssen get her way, though with a smile.

"We're both from huge families where the attitude is, 'I'm going to fuss at you from time to time but as soon as it's over, it's over,' " he said.

Janssen, 59, was born in Belize, one of eight children in a tight Lebanese family. Her father, D. Eugene Mastry, ran several family businesses — cigarettes, boats, jalousie windows, laundry soap and logging.

As a girl, Janssen worked during the summers making cigarette cases. She described her upbringing as happy and comfortable, but more spartan than life in the United States.

Kids talked and played for entertainment. They rode horses, played piano and went fishing.

In 1961, when Janssen was 12, her father sold the businesses, moved to St. Petersburg and started Mastry Marine and Industrial Supply Co.

She graduated in 1966 from Boca Ciega High and in 1970 from the University of South Florida with an education degree. She taught one year at Perkins Elementary before moving back to Belize to marry a childhood sweetheart.

She stayed for nine years, teaching at a private college and working in her husband's family businesses.

In 1980, she returned to Pinellas, eventually working as an administrator at Lakewood, Countryside and St. Petersburg high schools.

In 1996, she and her second husband, Dennis Janssen, ran into tough times and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy but have long since recovered financially. Janssen said it will have no bearing on her ability to manage the district's $1.5-billion budget.

She said she's already been deeply involved in the budget and other areas, including the district's construction operation. Her efforts at "stirring the pot" on construction bids have led to more cost controls, she said.

Like other superintendents, she said she would rely on district staffers with expertise in their assigned areas.

"You talk to the people who have the knowledge and get their advice," she said. "I'm not a one-man show."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Superintendent shoo-in close to reaching her goal 09/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:49pm]
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