Emotional farewell for Arundel principal

Retiring: Diane Lenzi spent 12 years as Park Elementary's leader but, amid tears and changes, decided it was time to go.

November 26, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Diane Lenzi, an Anne Arundel County principal who retired yesterday after 33 years of watching children grow up, would not describe herself as a "huggy" person.

But when she said goodbye to the 400 pupils of Park Elementary in Brooklyn Park on Friday -- the last day of school for county students before the Thanksgiving holiday -- the career educator held some of them to her chest and cried like a baby.

Lenzi, 54, had reasons to shed tears. She had established deep roots during her 12-plus years leading the school, located in a community just south of Baltimore targeted by police for crime reduction.

She would miss the school she had transformed from a run-down, unruly elementary into a sparkling, orderly institution that attracts non-Anne Arundel residents to the neighborhood.

But after more than a decade of running the high-poverty school with a strict brand of discipline -- no traditional recess, no talking for the last five minutes of lunch -- she had begun to feel her control slip away. What persuaded her to retire, she said, was the county school administration's growing emphasis on boosting test scores at low-achieving schools.

"That's the only goal," Lenzi said of Superintendent Eric J. Smith's initiatives, which include using identical textbooks and programs in every school. "It just saddens me."

Though Lenzi's feelings are mirrored by educators in other school systems, Anne Arundel's superintendent is particularly in line with a recently enacted federal law that requires "highly qualified" teachers in classrooms and "adequate yearly progress" by schools on standardized tests.

"All my friends are gone," she said of several educators who have retired since Smith's arrival in July last year. "When you start talking like a dinosaur, it's time to find another area."

Smith said he understands that Lenzi and others feel they have less freedom than before. "It certainly is a concern and something I'm personally very sensitive to," he said.

But the superintendent said he is confident that teachers and principals will find ways to be creative using the countywide programs, once they get used to them.

Professionalism

Regardless of her reason for leaving, teachers and parents said they would miss the stability and professionalism that Lenzi brought to the school.

Parent Patty Schline remembers how Lenzi -- after mobilizing parents to demand a school building that was built in 1995 -- sold bricks from the old Park Elementary for $5 each, raising money and fostering pride in the school's history at the same time. "I definitely think she'll still be in the halls in spirit," Schline said.

Lenzi has always been a proponent of order and discipline -- but not to the detriment of children having fun and being creative.

"Many of these children come from a very disorganized family," she said. "Walking into a school that's very organized, very firm, is paramount."

After her arrival in 1991, she took one look at the number of fights during recess and decided to overhaul the free play time. "It was like a war zone," she recalled. "They didn't know how to play."

The next year, she replaced recess with "teacher-guided activity" time, during which teachers lead their pupils in kickball, checkers and other games. The activities have grown popular with pupils and teachers.

Three years ago, Lenzi traveled to Japan on a three-week educators' Fulbright Memorial Fund fellowship examining its educational system. She e-mailed her pupils every day and brought back trunks full of items. Back at home, she also was the host to teachers from Russia and Kenya.

Lenzi, who owns antiques shops on the Eastern Shore, also has involved her pupils in mural-painting projects and regular theater productions. She played American Indian music over the loudspeaker in the office, which she decorated with antique school desks, darkly colored Amish quilts and wrought-iron tables and chairs.

"I understand you have to have [academic] standards," Lenzi said. "But children are not widgets. There are some children who blossom with art and music and sports."

Lenzi conceded that test scores at Park did not always rise during her tenure. School officials say that is partly because of the 40 percent student-transiency rate.

But she pointed to bright spots, such as the year Park received an honorable mention in the state Blue Ribbon School program that rewards schools for improvement.

Teachers say Lenzi was straightforward, clear about her expectations and worked hard to find professional development opportunities for her staff.

Always positive

"She's not one [who] you go out and do happy hour with," said Lisa Smith, a first-grade teacher who has taught at Park for a decade. "But when it came down to being observed [by Lenzi], she always, always said something positive about what was going on. I think she was honest."

On Friday, Lenzi braced herself before entering Dottie Wysong's fifth-grade class.

"This is gonna be hard," she said, dabbing under her eyes.

She opened the door and greeted the children, asking them to repeat one of her favorite sayings, involving the school mascot. "Can you say, `Have a terrific Tiger day?'" she whispered, holding back tears.

The class sang out the greeting. Then Lenzi burst into tears as Shannon Kitzmiller, 10, stood to give the principal a hug. The other students looked on in silent consternation.

"They've never seen emotional Mrs. Lenzi," the principal said later.

Yesterday, Lenzi indulged in a last-minute show of emotion.

Before walking out of its doors as principal for the last time, she left dark-red lipstick prints on the door of the main office, on the mailboxes of her favorite teachers, on her assistant principal's doorplate.

"She kissed everything on her way out," said Reaver Brown, the school's chief custodian.

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