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Melrose discovers a principal on campus


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Susan Graham, assistant principal of Melrose Elementary School, is being recommended for the top position at the magnet for communications and mass media.

"I'm elated, ecstatic," said Ms. Graham, 43, who has spent almost four years as assistant principal at Melrose.

Ms. Graham will begin her new job Friday, but her appointment will not be official until approved by the School Board, which will take it up on March 13. Ms. Graham replaces John Burwell, who has transferred to Curlew Creek Elementary in Palm Harbor. Today is his last day at Melrose. He was the only principal the school had ever had since becoming a magnet school.

While it seems natural for an assistant principal to be promoted to the job vacated by the principal, there is no guarantee that it will happen, said Martha O'Howell, assistant superintendent for human resources.

"That happens, but it certainly doesn't happen every time," she said.

Ms. Graham was one of four candidates for the Melrose position. The others were Mary Jane Dann, assistant principal at Lealman Elementary, Kathleen Woolums, assistant principal at Plumb Elementary, and William Mike Bailey, assistant principal at John Hopkins Middle.

Paula Lamb, Area 4 superintendent, said the interview committee was impressed with Graham's enthusiasm and desire to be principal of Melrose.

"In addition to answering all the questions, she is the most qualified, since she was there at the school," Ms. Lamb said.

"She is the one who would be able to hit the ground running. She knows the children. She knows the staff and all those things were in her favor, and I'm certainly delighted to have her."

Ms. Graham, who attended Riviera Middle and Northeast High schools, went on to St. Petersburg Junior College and the University of South Florida. She received her master's degree in educational leadership from Nova University. She is single and has a 23-year-old daughter, Barbara.

Even as she celebrates her new job, the new principal is aware that she faces several challenges. Melrose is temporarily housed in trailers behind Maximo Elementary School during a $4.5-million renovation of its campus at 1752 13th Ave. S. The school is expected to return to its refurbished home in the spring.

"How many new principals get a new building?" Ms. Graham asked.

In addition to moving back home, the school has plenty of other work ahead.

"The staff and I need to talk about ordering new furniture, new technology . . . room assignments. We are already at state-of-the-art standards, but we want to be current with the most recent up-to-date technology," she said.

And there is a new journalism position to be filled within the next month or so.

Ms. Graham, who recently moved to Dunedin, is undaunted, however, by the hectic schedule and long days that will be part of her job as a principal.

"I get a lot of work done between 4 and 6," she said, adding that as assistant principal she already had been accustomed to being present at after-school functions.

She leads one of the county's grade school magnet programs, designed voluntarily to draw non-black students to predominantly black neighborhoods. In some ways, magnet schools will provide a model for other schools as the new era of "controlled choice" begins in a few years. Currently, children can be bused to a zoned school that may be far from home. Under the new system, schools will compete with each other by offering special programs in the hope that integration will continue without busing for desegregation.

The new principal said she did not hesitate to apply for the position.

To be interviewed, candidates for principal are required to have an educational leadership certification and complete a 2-year principal program offered by the district. The salary range for an elementary school principal is $54,072 to $79,740. Ms. Graham, who was paid $50,600 as assistant principal, will make $55,812 in her new job.

"I was nervous before I went in," Ms. Graham said of Friday's 25- to 30-minute interview in a conference room in the Pinellas County Schools administrative building in Largo.

Candidates appeared before a committee that consisted of the curriculum and instructional director, director of operations, a teacher, two principals, a human resources representative, the assistant superintendent for equal employment opportunity and Ms. Lamb, the area superintendent.

But Ms. Graham had arrived with reinforcements. Elizabeth Knish, literary arts curriculum coordinator for the Melrose's magnet program, had supplied her with interview tips.

"They were awesome tips. That was the day before," Ms. Graham recollected Tuesday.

Debbie McDonald, a fourth-grade teacher, had given her a lucky penny.

"It had a cute little rhyme on it," Ms. Graham said.

But Melrose's new principal probably had not needed a talisman.

"I had done my homework three weeks in advance," she said, explaining that she had had "an inkling" that the principal's job might soon be available.

Monday afternoon she learned the good news.

Tuesday morning, the area superintendent announced it to the Melrose staff.

The students heard soon after.

"The guidance counselor introduced the new principal to the children and that was me," Ms. Graham said.

"Some of the children were coming up and shaking my hand. It was very cool."

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