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New principal expects to help Thunderbirds take flight
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Lori Potenza is the new principal at Pinellas Park Middle School.
PINELLAS PARK – Even before Lori Potenza could drive a car, she knew how to fly an airplane. Already she has earned a private pilot’s license with an instrument rating. Now, Potenza is working toward a multi-engine rating.

Given that, it seems somewhat fitting that this energetic pilot turned principal will now steward the more than 1,000 Thunderbirds at Pinellas Park Middle School.

“To me, this is like coming home,” said Potenza who graduated from Pinellas Park High School. At the University of South Florida, she earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and her master’s degree in educational leadership.

Potenza has been educating across Pinellas County for 18 years. She started in teaching positions at Tarpon Springs Middle, Carwise Middle and Palm Harbor University High School. Most recently, Potenza worked as assistant principal for seven years at Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater.

Pinellas Park Middle is a good fit for her, she said, because the two middle schools are similar. “Pinellas Park mirrors the demographics, staff and student needs,” said Potenza.

Both schools offer gifted programs, MEGSSS/IMAST, in math and science. Also offered is a program for non-English speaking students.

The teachers and support staff are key strengths at Pinellas Park Middle, she said.

“The staff is outstanding, and they love children,” she added.

Potenza noted that many of the teachers have been there for more than 15 years.

One language arts teacher, Fritz Kirsch, has taught at the school for 38 years.

“This is truly a community school with a lot of teacher commitment,” said Potenza.

A few changes are planned, particularly in streamlining processes and increasing parent communication.

“We want to have more teacher Web sites available for parents,” she said.

Another goal is to make the school more family-friendly by offering a welcome room for parents to wait when picking up their children or registering new students.

The Park Way character program will continue this school year with a strong emphasis on 10 achievement-guaranteeing personal characteristics. Those include courtesy, commitment, respect, appreciation, initiative, responsibility, self-discipline, honesty, cooperation and success.

Striking a balance between academics and physical fitness is another passion for Potenza. After all, she rises at 4 a.m. every morning to work out.

“I’m kind of a health nut,” she said.

She wants to let students participate in walkathons or some kind of physical activity during the day.

“We can’t expect students to sit all day in classrooms and then sit the entire lunchtime too,” she said. “I couldn’t do it either.”

The district plans called for a new school to be built on the same site in 2007. The school was built in the late 1950s. But plans have changed, and a new date hasn’t been set. It isn’t the building Potenza will miss.

“I’m disappointed we won’t have the systems that come with a new facility like a new phone system and computer set-ups,” she added.

Another emphasis Potenza wants to stress is more mentors for students.

“I think every child should have at least one adult to connect with at school, whether that’s a teacher, staff member or someone from the community,” she added.

Parent involvement is also important.

“We have a very small PTSA that is doing an amazing job getting things done,” said Potenza.

But, of course, more parents are needed to support that association along with the school’s School Advisory Council. Potenza encourages anyone interested in volunteering or supporting the school to call Kimberly Paine, the school’s community involvement assistant.

When the subject turns to curriculum, Potenza said an increased emphasis would be placed on improving reading strategies. Gone are the days of silent reading. Potenza wants to incorporate reading in content areas that fits the student’s level. A reading specialist and coach will be added as well as an eighth grade reading class.

“Reading should be fun and exciting for students,” she said.

Don’t plan on seeing Potenza in the front office too often.

“I plan on spending 90 percent of my time with students and teachers,” she said. “My focus is on the students and staff and supporting the day-to-day education.”

But she encourages parents and community members to schedule appointments to meet her.

“Educational leaders must model the behavior they want to see,” said Potenza. “If I ask a student to pick up a piece of paper, I’ve got to do that too. It all begins with common courtesy.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the school or volunteering is welcome to call Potenza or Kimberly Paine at 545-6400. Pinellas Park Middle School is located at 6940 70th Ave. N.
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