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Bazzell ready to roll

The new superintendent of Pike County Schools has big plans for the system. Although only in office for a few weeks, Dr. Mark Bazzell has a lot on his plate - and his eyes are ever on improving a school system that, he admits, has a bit of an image problem.

After delivering a State of the Schools address to the Pike County School Board last week - just one of the many changes Bazzell is implementing - he is now preparing to enact his plans.

"The presentation I gave was mostly just a way to get a long-term strategic plan in writing," he said. "I wanted to not only give a detailed update of the school district's standing, but also to preview coming years and stress the need to look ahead."

The larger themes of Bazzell's plans include drafting a mission statement and stressing the need to create some high expectations for the system - and then fulfilling them.

"We'll never get the respect we deserve until we get off of the academic watch lists," he said. "We have a lot of things to be proud of and we'll do whatever it takes to improve the standing and image of our schools."

To get those schools off of the statewide "watch lists," and to create and environment whereby students, teachers and citizens are proud of their schools, Bazzell has a number of strategies lined up.

From a public relations offensive to actually creating new buildings, Bazzell expects to elevate standards on all fronts. Among the innovations: a new plan for starting education even earlier.

"We're going to improve instructional programs and create a pre-K program for the county schools," he said. "We're going to emphasize reading and the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Reading First program because reading is a key to success in all the other academic areas and has to be a focus."

Bazzell also want to expand the focus of existing instructional programs to include a community service component. He said that students should be expected to perform service related activities in addition to their academic responsibilities.

"Whether it's the Red Cross or a Christmas program, the students need to know that life is not just about getting a job, going to work and going home. There needs to be an emphasis on giving something back to the community," he said.

However, traditional academics will receive some serious attention as well. Bazzell said he wanted to improve graduation rates at Pike County High School and make serious moves to cut into the drop-out rate.

"Seventh and eighth-grades are key ages for getting to kids and preventing drop outs," he said. "That's not just our system, but across the board, statistics show that transition to be a critical time."

At the structural level, Bazzell said sixth-grade would likely move from Goshen High School to Goshen Elementary School in coming years in an attempt to equalize the grade levels at the schools in the system. Currently, K-8 are at Banks, K-5 at GES, K-6 at Pike County Elementary, 6-12 at Goshen High School and 7-12 at PCHS.

Bazzell stressed the value of the existing partnerships with other entities, such as the cooperation with East Central Mental Health that provides a full-time social worker to the school system and the alliance with the Troy City Schools that has made the academy programs possible.

Such partnerships are among the triumphs that will be touted in a new pair of publications by the school system. "Board Biz" will tell readers about the activities of the Pike County Board of Education, while "Connections" will convey monthly messages from Bazzell to the general public. Whether telling people what's on the lunch menu or announcing that the system is hiring bus drivers, Bazzell wants a better dialogue with the general public.

The public relations initiative stems not only from a desire to bring the parents of students into a dialogue about education, but also to show the taxpayers that their funds are well spent. Bazzell is planning several cost-saving measures to weather the coming storms of proration at the same time that he hopes to improve the instruction and infrastructure of the schools.

"From top to bottom, we are reworking things like the maintenance and transportation departments and we are going to create a program that people can be proud of," he said. "We've also eliminated the positions of assistant superintendent and maintenance supervisor and are creating a new position called Director of Finance and Operations."

Bazzell said the new position would be filled by a person with a background in management and finance and the consolidation would save the system $50,000.

"That's $50,000 that will make it into a classroom," he said.

Such fiscal savings must be the hallmark of the coming years as state education leaders promise even further cuts in the funds needed to educate Alabama's children.

"Fortunately, we had $759,000 carry over from 2001-02 that we can use in 2003 and we may have some carry over from the sales tax money from the next 11 months," Bazzell said.

Bazzell said the school board didn't budget for 11 months of the sales tax approved by the county commission, and therefore had some extra funds to keep things running when the statewide "rainy day fund" runs out next year.

"We could have $1.94 million in potential reserve," Bazzell said. "Even though the state Department of Education recommends that a system of our size have a $3 million surplus, we're still much better off than we could be."

Still, with a bit of money in the bank and a new building being erected at Pike County High School to replace the crumbling old main building, Bazzell is optimistic about his tenure and the coming years.

"I'm very confident that we will get through 2004 and many systems are facing a more serious situation than we are. We're running bare bones programs right now, but we will be able to keep the doors open."