His appointment four months ago by the governor to fill a vacant seat surprised some Pinellas School Board members — and many local leaders.
This week, Glenton Gilzean Jr. continued the theme, surprising his new colleagues when he announced at Tuesday's board meeting that he would write letters of recommendation for 75 students with middle-of-the-road GPAs who are eager to go to college.
"It's probably one of the most meaningful things I'm doing on the board," said Gilzean, 30, who is running to keep the District 7 seat Gov. Rick Scott asked him to fill after the death of longtime board member Lew Williams.
He is calling the initiative "Gilzean's Graduates."
Although they support student mentoring, several board members said they would have expected to have been apprised of the effort while it was in the planning stages.
Linda Lerner immediately requested the board receive written information about the program. "A board member can have impact by helping or being directly involved, but this sounds a little beyond that," she said later.
Lerner, the board's longest-serving member, was even more surprised to learn that the district sent out a news release promoting Gilzean's plan to visit Dixie Hollins, Lakewood and Gibbs high schools to select the students.
While members regularly visit schools, rarely if ever does the school district send out news releases about such a thing. "I don't know if I've ever known a board member to send out a press release," said Lerner, who has been on the board for 22 years.
A Republican Party activist, Gilzean's sudden arrival on the Pinellas education scene created waves with some community members who felt Scott made the selection for political reasons. Gilzean is the founder of Educate Today, a nonprofit designed to help low-income families sort through the educational options available to their kids.
Running against four challengers for the south Pinellas County School Board seat, Gilzean said his inspiration for the program has nothing to do with his political ambition.
"Is this a campaign thing?" he said. "I don't think so. Because this was something on my heart even prior to even knowing if I wanted to run for re-election."
Gilzean said that when he was in high school, he benefited when a mentor wrote him a letter of recommendation to accompany his own college applications.
After Scott appointed him in January, Gilzean said he talked with superintendent John Stewart about establishing a program to do something similar. He met with administrators and the wheels were set in motion.
The school district's April 24 news release said Gilzean would be talking with AVID students about "his career and his own experiences in high school." AVID is an elective program designed to give promising students from challenging circumstances the skills and training they need to be competitive college applicants.
Gilzean said the principals at each school identified the students they thought could use the boost. He then interviewed all 75 and now he plans to help them "tweak" their resumes and write their letters of recommendation. He said he hopes to recruit more mentors for Gilzean's Graduates and he welcomes the board member interest.
Like Lerner, board members Carol Cook, Robin Wikle, Peggy O'Shea and Terry Krassner said they're eager to hear more about "Gilzean's Graduates."
"It could raise some concerns or it could be a very good thing," Cook said. "What concerned me was the resumes for college. It would be a concern if he didn't in fact know the kids very well."
Cook, who is also running for re-election to her seat, said she's familiar with the concerns some have about politicians using their offices to campaign, but said that's open to interpretation.
"The problem is any time you do anything as a School Board member when you're running for election, it could be viewed as a campaign stunt," she said.
Sami Scott is a vocal School Board critic and former Gibbs High parent who frequently speaks up on issues related to African-American student success. She said Gilzean's initiative sounds like a great idea to her, even if it were to somehow benefit him politically.
"This, to me, is what School Board members ought to be doing," she said. "Unfortunately, our black male and female children have so few leaders to look up to who are really interested in their success."
Gilzean said that he feels being a School Board member has given him a unique opportunity to make a difference for students. "For me," he said, "the bigger picture is making sure we make an impact."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]