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Principal shares his views about a new job

By Times staff reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

Principal John Burwell will make the long commute from his house in Palm Harbor to Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg for the last time today.

After 12 years at what became the magnet school for communications and mass media, he will report Thursday to a post closer to home at Curlew Creek Elementary. He will replace Claudia Stewart, who is retiring as principal after 38 years as a teacher and administrator.

The Neighborhood Times took this opportunity to ask Burwell what it was like to start a magnet school, what advice he has for his successor, and what he is looking forward to at his new job.

* * *

Q. During your 12-year tenure at Melrose, you oversaw the conversion of Melrose to a magnet school. As principal, what was your main responsibility in the conversion?

A. The school district actually did most of the work. I was asked if I would like to stay on as principal, and when I agreed, it became my responsibility to hire new faculty. We had to increase our staff by about 30 percent. We knew we would have these openings, so we got the jump on hiring. We were able to interview people from all over the country and hired people from California, Michigan and Nebraska.

Q. How did your duties as principal change after Melrose became a magnet school?

It was my job to make sure the magnet program was functioning properly. I shared the responsibility with the magnet coordinator, Susan Graham, who had been our assistant principal.

* * *

Q. What were your biggest challenges at Melrose?

We had to move the school a couple of times. Eight years ago, when there was a possibility of soil contamination, we only had two or three days to relocate. That was a real challenge in crisis management. Setting up this satellite campus at Maximo (while construction is being completed on the new school) has also been a challenge.

Converting to a magnet school was also a challenge. The whole thing seemed overwhelming at first. Getting organized and taking things in order was very important.

Q. How do you feel about leaving Melrose before the new school is completed?

I guess I'm just happy it's being completed. I would have liked to see beyond the blueprints, but the most important thing is that it's happening for the students. It doesn't really matter if I'm there to see the finished school.

Q. What will you miss most about Melrose?

I'll miss the relationships I've built over the past 12 years with parents and students.

Q. What advice would you give your successor?

Probably the most important thing I'll pass on is that I'm only a phone call away. We've talked about the importance of communicating, of staying in touch, of networking. We don't have to work in isolation.

Q. How familiar are you with Curlew Creek?

I've spent three or four afternoons there after school, and I've met the staff. I think I have a pretty good handle on their programs. I know that the school is doing very well academically. It's been an A school for the past two years. I've also had the chance to talk to some of the students, and I've visited some of the classrooms.

Q. Is there a difference in racial makeup between the two schools? What challenges, if any, does race pose in school administration?

There is a difference in racial balance between the two schools. I think the racial makeup at Curlew Creek is about 10 percent African-American. About 70 students of a 740 population are ESOL (English as a second language) students. Here at Melrose, almost one half are ESOL or minority students. But I think the same challenges (to present sound academic programs) exist in all schools, regardless of racial makeup.

Q. Besides the shorter commute, what are you looking forward to at Curlew Creek?

Working with the staff here at Melrose for the past 12 years has been a wonderful experience. Now I'm looking forward to working with a new staff, new teachers. I'm looking forward to gleaning their experience.

Q. Do you have any ideas for new programs at Curlew Creek?

Not yet. That's part of the beauty of going into the school at this point in the year. I'll be able to watch and think about what needs to be done. I'll have a chance to observe. I know I'll be carrying on what the principal started, including work with the classroom learning system.

Q. What type of attractors will you use to bring children to Curlew Creek when the choice plan begins in 2003?

We will definitely maintain the academic focus. We've also talked about introducing some technology programs.

Q. What would you like to accomplish as principal at Curlew Creek in the next five years?

By concentrating on academics and character education, I want to make sure that all children have every opportunity to learn. Mrs. Stewart has left the school in remarkably good shape. I just want to carry on what she's set in place to make sure that no child is left behind.

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