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Success sweetens principal's farewell

In an announcement that surprised some and saddened many, Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary principal Len Kizner announced his plans to retire at the end of the school year.

Kizner, a 34-year veteran of Pinellas schools, told Bay Vista's Parent Teacher Association members Tuesday evening that as much as he loves the school, he wants time to pursue other interests, which include traveling.

"I need time to begin a whole new transition," he elaborated in a phone interview Thursday. "An extra year, an extra dollar is not going to make a difference. I would value the time much more than the dollar."

The 58-year-old, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in speech pathology and audiology at Emerson College in his native Boston, is known throughout the school district for accomplishing what no other principal has ever done.

With the grass roots support of a dedicated School Advisory Council in 1997, he successfully transformed Bay Vista, 5900 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S, from a lackluster zoned school to an in-demand countywide fundamental school that consistently attracts six children for every available seat.

Up until that time, the district had created fundamental programs, which, with the exception of Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School, draw children from all over the county and require an application for consideration.

Ultimately, students who apply to countywide programs are subject to a random lottery because the number of applications far exceeds the number of available seats.

Seven years after Kizner's bold move, his accomplishment stands as an example of what the district envisions as the model for its controlled choice plan for student assignment: a high-achieving school that voluntarily draws a diverse student population from a wide geographic area.

Bay Vista's transformation began shortly after Kizner arrived at the school in 1995. About 150 neighborhood students had been permanently bused away from the school to meet court-ordered racial ratios. Many parents were too busy or too disinterested to respond to teachers' requests for conferences. Some neighborhood students were leaving to attend the county's magnet or fundamental schools.

In search of a solution, the SAC members studied various educational themes. They ultimately decided that a back-to-basics fundamental approach with its emphasis on student responsibility, parental involvement, daily homework and discipline was their answer.

The district's Biracial Advisory Committee, which had been created by the federal court to monitor desegregation in the county's public schools, liked the idea. The members were convinced a fundamental program would give more children the opportunity to attend school closer to home.

But the parents still had to sell the idea of creating the district's fifth elementary fundamental school to the School Board.

"Before we went before the board for the first time, we got many people at the district level saying, "I'm sorry, this is not going to happen,' " Kizner said, explaining that an additional stumbling block was transportation. Because Bay Vista had a large population of children with special needs, the parents wanted to retain busing.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley told Kizner that busing was not part of the fundamental concept. He suggested he go back to the SAC and ask if the members would drop their insistence on the transportation piece. The SAC agreed.

Current School Board chairwoman Jane Gallucci vividly recalls that October 1997 meeting. It was the night she was sworn in as a School Board member.

"I couldn't see any reason for not doing it," she recalled. "One of the questions I kept asking was, "If the parents want this and they're willing to commit to this plan, why aren't we doing it?' "

Actually, there were several reasons why the concept was problematical, Kizner said. Without transportation, the school lost about a third of its students. It also lost two-thirds of its teachers.

"Some left because they did not want to become that heavily involved with parents," Kizner said. "That was okay. I was very glad to find them another place to be. If you were going to be at the school, you had to want to be in the fundamental program."

Almost immediately after the conversion, things began to turn around. Disciplinary referals dropped off and standardized test scores began to rise, Kizner said.

Kizner said that Bay Vista maintained a 33 to 34 percent ratio of African-American students both as a zoned school and as a fundamental school, but the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch has decreased by about 30 percent.

Since the advent of controlled choice, the number of applications has dropped slightly, which Kizner attributes to the success of the choice plan.

"There are so many other opportunities for parents," he said. "My hat is off to those choice schools. We were very lucky because our special focus was created for us."