Official's goal:Boost student achievement

Published Feb. 24, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott appointed Glenton Gilzean Jr. to the Pinellas County School Board last month to fill the seat that had been held by Lew Williams, who died in December.

It didn't go over well in Pinellas.

Gilzean holds a master's degree in business entrepreneurship from the University of South Florida and operates a nonprofit organization that is qualified to distribute private school vouchers to low-income families. He is a 29-year-old African-American who moved to St. Petersburg just weeks before the death of Williams, who was 68, the only African-American on the School Board and a former teacher, principal and administrator with deep roots in the community and the school district.

Gilzean met last week with leaders from St. Petersburg's black community, who suggested he learn about the county's black leaders in education and its issues regarding the achievement gap between black and white students. He has not said whether he will seek election to the seat this fall, and I spoke with him before that meeting.

What was the evolution of your appointment? Did you ask for the job, and why did you accept it when you never lived here?

I moved to St. Petersburg in November, before Mr. Williams died. I submitted an application just like all the other candidates. I came to Pinellas to bring the services that my organization, Educate Today, offers to at-risk and underprivileged children. I don't think the fact that I haven't lived in Pinellas for years diminishes what I bring to the table.

Diversity on the School Board brings strength to our efforts to increase student achievement, and I think that diversity goes beyond race and includes life experience, exposure to different problem-solving efforts in other districts, access to wisdom developed by trial and error in other areas of the state and so much more.

I will contribute everything I can to increasing the academic achievement of Pinellas County children, whether it's as a School Board member or the founder of Educate Today.

There are other people who were qualified to succeed Williams. Some have lived in St. Petersburg all their lives. What expertise distinguishes you?

I'm sure there are many others, each with their own unique attributes who could be an asset to Pinellas schools. But I'm not really familiar with their attributes so I don't feel qualified to talk about what I might bring to the table that would distinguish me from them.

I am passionately committed to finding solutions to closing the achievement gap, and I sincerely believe that a major contributing factor to that is going to be engaging stakeholders at all levels, from parents that may not have had many education opportunities of their own, like my mom and dad, all the way to our civic leaders and everything in between.

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Through the organization I founded, Educate Today, I work with grass roots parents every day who are desperate for their children to receive a better education than they had and are broken-hearted at the struggle for achievement that their children face.

I often speak with business and community leaders who are frustrated with an educational system that has let down so many of our youth that it has impacted workforce readiness and neighborhood development.

If we all want the same thing for our children, we should all be working together to accomplish it without holding back for fear that collaboration may mean loss of territory, power or resources. So my hope is that my idealism will distinguish me, because I do believe it's possible to facilitate that kind of multilevel successful collaboration and plan to be a part of it in this community.

You are a passionate supporter of vouchers. How do you justify using public funds for private school vouchers?

I am a supporter of student achievement. I recognize that each child is unique and not every child's needs are met in traditional public school environments. I want every child to achieve academic success regardless of what educational environment is necessary to accomplish that.

Many Republicans would privatize public schools if they could. Are you one of them?

I believe that every child should have the opportunity to attend a quality school that meets their individual learning needs and that starts with finding innovative ways within the system and outside the system to turn low-performing schools into high-performing schools.

School districts in this state have already begun to do this through public-private partnerships of their own initiative. I think we're all on board with the idea that we can't solve the problem of low-performing schools using the same kind of thinking that took place as the …problem developed.

What are your long-term goals?

To make Pinellas County a better place one student at a time.

Why did so many African-Americans oppose your appointment?

I don't think it's right to guess at why people think other applicants … should have been appointed over me. I'm sure every applicant has strong supporters who believe they were a better candidate. …I hope I am able to prove that I'm at least equal to the task in every way that matters. My No. 1 priority is student achievement and ensuring that every student in Pinellas County receives a world-class education.

Bill Maxwell can be reached at