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Bud Zimmer was a fundamental force of nature

For those who believe one person can't make a difference, I offer Bud Zimmer as an example of one person who did.

Zimmer was known as "Mr. Fundamental," a nickname derived from both his favorite topic, fundamental schools, and his approach to living: focus on the fundamentals, devote yourself to what's most important.

As a young man, Zimmer devoted himself to his country, joining the National Guard after high school, graduating from and later teaching at West Point, rising through the ranks of the Army. He devoted himself to his family — his wife, Jane, and the strong, smart and academically motivated children they raised together.

And for the past 35 years, he devoted himself to the children of Pinellas County as a passionate advocate for better public schools and, especially, fundamental schools. It became his second career, and while he made no money from it, Pinellas schoolchildren benefited in a big way.

Zimmer, of Clearwater, died last Sunday after a four-year struggle against thymoma, which is cancer of the thymus. Still, people who knew him were surprised by his death and shocked when they read in his obituary that he was 80 years old. Neither age nor sickness had sapped his seemingly boundless energy for working on behalf of schools and kids. Just weeks ago he sat onstage smiling at the first graduating class of Pinellas' first fundamental high school, Osceola Fundamental High School. It was the realization of his dream of a fundamental program that would extend from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Fundamental schools are back-to-basics public schools that emphasize performance, of parents and students. Students must agree to abide by rules that enforce academic discipline and don't tolerate misbehavior. Parents must agree to support the child's education, sign homework and attend regular meetings at the school. If the rules are broken by parent or child, the student may be disciplined or even transferred to a regular school. The fundamental schools are so popular that there is always another family waiting to get in.

Zimmer's first exposure to fundamental schools was in the 1970s when he and Jane, a schoolteacher, enrolled their first child at Pinellas' first, and then only, fundamental school, Curtis Fundamental in Clearwater. Zimmer, already retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, was a presence at Curtis from the first day. He was thrilled that fundamental schools set the bar high, insisting on dedication and excellence within a safe learning environment that gave every child the opportunity to do his or her best work.

Zimmer wanted more Pinellas children to have that opportunity, so he set out to help get it for them. He met with parents, was a regular at School Board meetings, and lobbied board members and four different school superintendents to create more fundamental schools. It was slow going, but when a new school opened, Zimmer shadowed the teachers and principals, observed what worked and what didn't, studied test scores, and gathered reams of statistics he said proved the case for fundamental schools. He had reporters and editorial writers, principals and School Board members on speed dial. Cancer barely slowed him. He would call me from the cancer clinic with a list of education issues he wanted to talk about while chemotherapy drugs dripped into his veins.

Though Zimmer was at heart an optimist, he was sometimes frustrated by school district officials who weren't interested in fundamental schools or contended that too many would hurt regular schools. He waved off critics who called fundamental schools de facto private schools within the public system, where white parents insulated their children from more racially diverse zoned schools and busing. Focus on the outcomes, he'd argue: top test scores, low suspension rates, 100 percent PTA membership, high achievement by African-American students. Every child from every kind of home could benefit from a fundamental approach to education, he'd say.

In recent years, Zimmer had reason to smile. More School Board members were open to the idea. Parents wanting better access to fundamental programs began organizing and lobbying district officials. School faculties voted to go fundamental and even have begun competing for the opportunity to be next. New superintendent Julie Janssen broached the idea of creating a "fundamental elementary district," where regular elementary schools would adopt some approaches of fundamental schools.

Today Pinellas has nine fundamental schools and more than 7,000 students enrolled in them. Many more students have completed their fundamental education here. And every one of them owes a debt of gratitude to Bud Zimmer, one person who focused on the fundamentals and devoted himself to what was most important, a better education for every child.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials of the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.

Bud Zimmer was a fundamental force of nature 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 4:30am]
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