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    Principal retires with an A for school

    photo
    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    Don Blanchard, the retiring principal at Highland Lakes Elementary in Palm Harbor, hugs Austin Weyant, 11. Each student in a graduation ceremony handed him chocolate. The school has received an A for three years in a row. "It's a very nice badge to wear," Blanchard said.

    By BROOKE HARTLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001


    Don Blanchard ends an education career of 31 years, the last six at highly rated Highland Lakes Elementary.

    PALM HARBOR -- When the state passed out grades to public schools last week, Highland Lakes Elementary School principal Don Blanchard was prepared for his school to get something lower than the A it had clinched two years in a row.

    Another perfect score, he thought, was highly unlikely.

    "Each year, you expect not to get one," he said. "You always want to anticipate that."

    This year he is glad he was wrong. Highland Lakes was one of 23 schools in the district to receive an A and one of only three to maintain that grade for three years. Having a well-rounded program and strong community involvement helped the school stay on top.

    "It's a very nice badge to wear," Blanchard said. "We're very proud of it. It motivates us to continue to keep doing the best we can."

    Starting next fall, however, the school will be working toward that goal without Blanchard, who is retiring.

    The school's principal for six years, Blanchard, 55, said he knows Highland Lakes' quality will continue because of what he said makes it an excellent learning environment: "the teachers, the parents, and the volunteers."

    Walk into Highland Lakes, and the volunteers are everywhere. In the office, three or four parents might be doing clerical tasks or talking to students who don't feel well. Others roam the halls and run the school's learning lab.

    "We chose this school before we chose our home," said JoAnn Hartung, who has a first- and a third-grader at the school. She knew of Highland Lakes' A grade and the high levels of parent and community involvement fostered, she says, by Blanchard and assistant principal Lawrence Slyck. Hartung now volunteers in the office once a week and recently was chosen the school's outstanding volunteer of the year.

    "This school welcomed us," she said.

    But Blanchard wants to spend time with his wife, Pam, who retired seven years ago after 30 years of teaching.

    "The goal is to go to the mountains for the changing of the leaves," he said.

    They have not been able to get to their beloved Rockies at that time of year since he began his career in education 31 years ago.

    Blanchard graduated from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, a small college with about 980 students. He began his teaching career in Indianola at an elementary school with a larger enrollment than his college.

    Four years later, Blanchard came to Pinellas County. He did his graduate work in education at the University of South Florida. He was principal at Cross Bayou Elementary in Pinellas Park for five years before coming to Highland Lakes. He was assistant principal at Walsingham Elementary for four years before that.

    He is proud of Highland Lakes Elementary and to be part of such a successful school, he said.

    The school responds to the community through its open door policy and the number of community events it holds each year, he said. And the community responds to the school. Blanchard said there are 400 to 500 school volunteers a year. The student population is 700.

    Now is a good time for him to retire, Blanchard said. The school district's shift to the choice plan for attendance is expected to take effect in the 2003 school year. This way, the new principal will administer the transition, he said.

    School administrators propose to replace Blanchard with Carolyn Sinclair, the current principal at Skyview Elementary School in Pinellas Park. School Board members are scheduled to consider the appointment next Tuesday.

    School secretary Mary Seary said she will miss her boss, with whom she came to the school six years ago.

    "He's nice, easygoing, fair-minded," Seary said. "Everything is by the book, and that's the way I like it. Then there are no questions. The school is great."

    PTA president Cindy Booth said the first thing she thought when Blanchard announced his retirement was "What are we going to do about the Monster Mash?"

    Typical of his personal commitment to the school, each year for the past five years Blanchard has organized a wildly staged, decorated and successful Halloween display, Booth said.

    "He takes over the cafeteria and the media center," she said. Blanchard has said he might come back and help next year as a volunteer.

    Blanchard said the autumn trip to the mountains is among his plans, but he and his wife intend to continue living in Safety Harbor.

    "This is our permanent home," he said.

    Blanchard will miss "the excitement of being in the business," and these are good times to be an educator in Pinellas County, he said. The transition to parent choice school assignment will be "an adventure," he said. "Pinellas County makes things work. They'll make this work."

    He is sure the school he has so much pride in, and affection for, will be a top choice for those already attending the school and for others, he said. "Highland Lakes itself is an attractor. There is so much confidence and excitement at the school."

    What he will miss the most, though, is the children. He and his wife do not have any.

    "I'll miss that. I really enjoy getting to work with the children and then watching them as they move on, and see how they are turning out," he said. "I got into this business because of the kids."

    Retirement will be an adjustment, he said, but "I want to spend some time with my wife."

    - Staff writers Monique Fields and Kelly Ryan contributed to this report.

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