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Final, fundamental thoughts

Last week, Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School principal Len Kizner announced his plans to retire after 34 years with the Pinellas County school district. During his tenure as a districtwide and school-based administrator, he coordinated the placement of special-education children as the district's staffing supervisor and served as assistant principal at Pinellas Park and Melrose elementary schools. He was principal at Woodlawn Elementary School for nine years before coming to Bay Vista as principal in 1995.

Kizner, who is 58, has the distinction of being the only principal who transformed a zoned school to a countywide fundamental school. With the help of Bay Vista's School Advisory Council in 1997, he ushered in a culture of parental involvement and high student achievement that consistently attracts six children for every available seat.

Kizner spent time with Neighborhood Times staff writer Donna Winchester on Sunday to talk about his views on "controlled choice" and what he perceives as the role of schools, the district and the state in educating children. He also offered some parting words to the educators he will leave behind on June 30.

Q: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges facing schools today, especially those in south Pinellas?

A: The biggest challenge facing all schools is funding. There doesn't seem to be a balance in the district's approach and the state's approach. They are not in harmony whatsoever. The state has very high expectations for all schools. The accountability piece is quite stringent. Yet the state is not willing to financially support programs in our district that will help us achieve those goals. It doesn't make much sense to me that people who have no true background in education are making these tremendous demands on educators. It's very hard to move forward knowing that the state is always putting us down, making great demands on us, oftentimes without funding to support those demands. It's just not fair.

Q: Your school has a very successful track record of high student achievement. But at other schools in your immediate vicinity, as many as 60 percent of third-graders are reading below grade level. What makes Bay Vista different?

A: The No. 1 piece, the major attractor, is parental involvement. We know from looking at research about academic achievement that the parental piece is extremely important. It's almost as important as the role of the teachers. I think that is the biggest plus Bay Vista has, that any fundamental school has, or any school where parents select through choice has. The implication is that if parents can choose, they are going to be involved. We can't raise the children. We only have them six hours a day. We work our rear ends off trying to bring their academic skills up to expected levels, but without the parental piece to follow through and reinforce what's happening in schools, you're not going to have high student achievement.

Q: Midway through the first year of controlled choice, how successful do you think the district's method of student assignment is?

A: Frankly, I'm not as involved with that. Our population is pretty set through the fundamental process. I don't receive students as other schools do through choice. I think that the district has spent a great deal of time investing in the process and trying to work out any bugs in the program. When you think of Pinellas County Schools as being the biggest business in the county introducing a major, overwhelming change in the way students are placed in schools, it's going to take some time to work out the system. I do believe it's working very well.

Q: Due to your foresight and the faith you placed in your parent community, you were able to convert Bay Vista from a zoned school to a fundamental school. If your efforts had not been successful, what type of attractor do you think you would have tried to implement for controlled choice?

A: I haven't given it as much thought because our attractor is a back-to-basics program with high parental involvement. From a personal viewpoint, I think technology would be a very good program to pursue. I think that would open up some opportunities for many children. Of course if you are lucky enough to be a magnet school and are fortunate enough to receive some funds to augment a program, all the better.

Q: Under the current rules of choice, you would be banned from establishing exactly the kind of program that has worked so well at your school _ a countywide fundamental. What do you think about that?

A: I often discuss it with my staff. I never let them forget the process we went through to create the fundamental program. I hope my successor will do the same. Occasionally we do talk about how fortunate we are that we decided to become a fundamental school when we did and that we're having success with children, very high performance levels and high parental involvement. We know that's very hard to achieve.

Q: While diversity and desegregation are goals of choice, many parents seem to prefer neighborhood schools, which would mean all-black and all-white schools or ones that are most certainly "racially identifiable." Do you think such a school would be acceptable or not?

A: From my perspective, I think integration is absolutely essential. For all the 34 years I've been in education, we have had to have enforced integration. We've always had quotas and percentages. You can talk with many parents who have many different views. I don't necessarily see anything wrong with an all-black or an all-white school. In teaching reading and writing and math it isn't critical. At the same time, I'm not certain that it's the real world. If you lived in an all-white community or an all-black community and went to an all-white or an all-black college and went to work in an all-white or an all-black office, I think there would be nothing wrong with going to an all-white or an all-black school. But that's not the real world. Parents send their children to school to participate in many different activities. The key is working together with each other successfully in harmony. I think that the more integration we have in schools, the more likely we'll succeed in that goal. Obviously, that's part of the choice plan as well, and I think it's important.

Q: You have had the luxury of being able to cherry pick a student population. If kids break the contract, they can be assigned elsewhere. How much does that contribute to the success of the school? What about a school where the faculty has no such leverage, a school that might lose the families it wants because they lack patience with the school's ability to progress with a hard caseload holding it back?

A: That's a question that I face all the time from my peers, and from any principal who is not a fundamental principal. The fundamental policies were not Bay Vista initiatives. We just assumed the policies when we assumed the fundamental structure. I think it's important for all children to abide by the rules of whatever program is in existence at their school. We dismiss very few children at our school for misbehavior. Oftentimes, it's just because the parent didn't come to a meeting. The parent just wasn't able to handle the program's rules. Even the educators at our school feel uncomfortable at times when a student has to leave because of a parent's lack of commitment. I'm sure every fundamental school feels the same way, but that's just how the program is. We tell parents, "Make sure you know what the rules are before you apply. Don't expect to come into the school and start adjusting the rules to comply with how you think things should be run." That's one of the things that parents love about the program and that some do not love.

Q: What are your predictions for the school system after the wearing-in period for choice ends in 2007?

A: I hope that things will continue as planned, that we'll continue to offer choices for parents and that there will be integrated schools with wonderful programs for children with wonderful attractors in place. That is the goal.

Q: Do you think attractors will have to continue to change and evolve over time in order to entice students to leave their neighborhoods and facilitate voluntary integration?

A: Yes. I think there will be a transition or evolution of the attractors. The schools have some initial sets of attractors, but we'll need to look carefully at how well chosen they are. The attractors may need to be tweaked a bit or even possibly changed so the schools can get a greater amount of attention from parents. It is a great challenge, especially for schools that select their attractors without the assistance of several hundred thousand dollars. It's very difficult to do without money.

Q: What do you think choice will do to the overall quality of schools? Will there be haves and have-nots?

A: There have always been schools that have and schools that have not. There have always been parents in economically advantaged neighborhoods who have supported their schools financially in ways that parents in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods have not been able to do. That may never change. But that, I think, is the goal of choice, for parents to pick schools and provide all the encouragement and support they can for that school.

Q: Are there enough engaged parents for a majority of schools to be good, or are there only enough for a handful of magnets, fundamentals and the occasional carefully designed choice school to succeed?

A: Schools that have a lower parental turnout need to do things to attract parents to the building. I think it's an enormous task for some schools, but there are hundreds of ways to do it. When I was principal at Woodlawn Elementary, the percentage of free and reduced-price lunch students was about three times the amount at Bay Vista. We provided opportunities for parents to come out of their homes and get into the school. Those types of things need to continue. I remember one principal at Lakewood Elementary. Many of her children's parents were among the poorest in the district. What she did at PTA meetings was feed them. For many of them, it may have been their only meal of the day. When she got them into the school, they had a big meal and then she gave them all kinds of information about the school. She told them, "You're not going to leave here until you commit to something." I have great respect for someone who analyzes the population and does whatever needs to be done to get parents to the school.

Q: What role do you think a school plays in shaping the future of a child?

A: A school needs to work on other factors, not just academic skills, like the inclusion of moral structure through the building of character. Schools should teach children how to relate to other children. They should teach the concepts of honesty, determination, motivation and responsibility. Schools need to establish warm relationships with children. They need to make sure children know they can go to any teacher if they have a need to talk about something. They need to let children know the future is theirs to carve any way they wish. They can make sure children know there are things they need to do in each developmental stage, and that right now, they need to learn as much as they possibly can, and to do it in a very responsible manner. All of that is so critical in the development of a child. It starts at home, but it's reinforced at school.

Q: Has being an educator colored your view of the world?

A: It really has. I think business has a vested interest in what happens in schools. Business has an obligation to support public schools. I feel businesses must be very committed financially. Many of them are supportive not only of Bay Vista but of other schools. I encourage that. The business community must support the schools because we are producing their future employees. Their obligation is to tell us what kind of product they want us to produce. Our job is to supply that product. If I were in a different profession, I probably would feel very differently.

Q: What message would you like to leave with teachers as you depart the school system?

A: I would like to let my staff members know how much I love and respect them. I know where they come from and how hard they've worked. They are not only educators, they're parents, they're my friends. I want more and more out of them because I know their capacity. To the other educators all over the district, I would say, good luck, folks. Continue working with kids the way you always have. Never doubt the children or their ability and the potential of all kids. All children are capable of performing at very high levels. As long as you continue to believe that, you'll continue to produce high achievement.

About Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School

Address: 5900 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. S

Number of students: 577, more than any other elementary fundamental school in the county

Number of children who applied for seats for 2004-05: 609

Number of seats available: 114

Number of black applicants: 165 for 39 seats

Number of nonblack applicants: 444 for 75 seats

2002-03 FCAT summary:

Grade 3, lowest level reading: 2 percent

Grade 3, lowest level math: 3 percent

Grade 3, above-average reading: 46 percent

Grade 3, above-average math: 54 percent

Federal No Child Left Behind status: One of three south Pinellas schools that met the standards

Number of volunteer hours in 2002-03: 13,987