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Principals for a day

Public schools are visited by 135 business and community leaders, who come away with newfound respect for the education system.

By JANE MADDEN WELCH
Published October 4, 2005


CLEARWATER - Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard doesn't think it was a waste of time extolling the virtues of the city to people who can't even vote yet.

Hibbard was one of 135 area business and community leaders who spent part of a day at one of Pinellas County's public schools as part of the Presidents as Principals program offered by the Pinellas Education Foundation.

On Wednesday, Hibbard spent the morning at Kennedy Middle School, accompanying principal Susan Keller to classrooms, where he interacted with students.

Most of the students' questions he handled easily. Do you like being mayor? (Yes.) Where did you graduate? (Countryside High and FSU.) How much do you get paid? (Eighteen thousand a year.)

But Hibbard was momentarily stumped by sixth-grader Robert Winwright's question: "Why is gas so high?"

The mayor listened to students read in Bea Wheatley's class, had his picture taken in George Fatolitis' mass media class, and watched students perform in Stephen Hull's band class.

Hibbard told the students about Clearwater's recreation facilities. He discussed with Keller how the city could be a better partner with local schools. He left stacks of business cards and encouraged students to e-mail him.

"I had an incredible time," he said. "I thought the kids were receptive. It was a super day."

Hibbard, a financial planner with Morgan Stanley, has participated in Presidents as Principals before; he visited Curtis Fundamental Elementary last year and hopes to visit a high school next year.

Wednesday's program, which involved schools all over the county, ended with a reception at the Stavros Institute in Largo for all the participants. Pinellas County school superintendent Clayton Wilcox addressed the group and led an informal discussion on school district issues.

"This program provides an opportunity to bring folks with different vantage points together with our educators, who practice a craft that they know and love," Wilcox said.

The Pinellas Education Foundation, founded in 1986, has raised more than $60-million for the county's public schools. This year's Presidents as Principals program, the 14th, was sponsored by Alltel and KPMG.

"This is an opportunity for the business community to immerse themselves in our public schools," said Rich Engwall, senior vice president of the foundation. "We want to engage the business leaders in constructive dialogue about their observations."

Participants who spent the morning as honorary principals walking the halls and touring classrooms represented a wide range of backgrounds, including hospital administrators, business owners, government officials, media managers and corporate executives.

Wilcox was shadowed by Larry Griffith, president of Southeast retail services for Alltel. They attended meetings and visited Mildred Helms Elementary.

"I found that Dr. Wilcox, in his position, has many similarities with running a business," Griffith said. "I walked away with a lot of respect for what he's doing."

Wilcox said he hopes programs like this forge a deeper partnership between the school district and the business community. "We want more than a feel-good activity," he said.

Oldsmar Elementary principal David Schmitt got a visit from Jim Lappert, vice president of Cool Water Pools and Spas of New Port Richey, and Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland.

"We triple-teamed the kids today with three principals," Schmitt said.

The director of operations at the Pinellas Marine Institute in St. Pete Beach visited Belcher Elementary. It was Robert Johnson Jr.'s first year participating in Presidents as Principals.

Johnson, who attended Maximo Elementary, Bay Point Middle and Lakewood High, said it had been "forever" since he was in an elementary school. "It was good to see all the positive reinforcement in the classroom," he said. "I would encourage my peers to get involved next year."

Retired New York school principal Jay Colville of Dunedin spent the morning at Largo Central Elementary. He said morale was high and principal Angelean Bing was energetic. Colvilee described her as a great "people-skills person."

"And the kids were phenomenal," Colville said. "I had a very good, positive experience."

Tim Leith, human resources manager for Custom Manufacturing and Engineering of St. Petersburg, visited Seminole Middle School, shadowing principal Judy LeBoeuf.

"Staff members were focused and dedicated and every student engaged," Leith said. "That's no small task."