Mary Kanter passes leadership baton to Ryan Kelly
By B.C. Manion
When Mary Kanter began working at Carrollwood Day School almost three decades ago, the school was an early childhood center operating out a storefront on Gunn Highway.
Over the years, the school has expanded to include programs from early childhood through high school.
It is one of a handful of schools in North America to offer the full continuum – preschool through high school – of the International Baccalaureate brand of education.
When Kanter took over as head of the school in 1998, there were 222 students. Now, the school’s enrollment is pushing 900, with students coming from communities including Lutz, Odessa, Carrollwood, Westchase, Wesley Chapel, Land O’ Lakes and New Tampa.
The campus for elementary, middle and high school students sits on a picturesque plot of land at 1515 W. Bearss Ave. It also has an early childhood campus at 12606 Casey Road.
Recently, the school wrapped up phase one of an extensive construction project. It built a new elementary school and renovated the main building to include new high school classrooms, performing and fine arts studios and offices. It also involved remodeling of the school auditorium into a state-of-the-art performing arts theatre, which seats more than 800.
During the next phase, the goal is to add a school gymnasium and at some point, school officials would like to add a middle school building.
Besides enrollment growth and physical improvements, the school also has garnered its share of accolades through the years, including designation as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education and being the first school on the west coast of Florida to be authorized by the International Baccalaureate Organization to offer the Primary Years Programme.
Kanter announced her decision to retire 18 months ago – allowing the school’s board plenty of time to find a replacement and create a smooth transition.
As it turns out, the board didn’t have to look far. They opted to promote Ryan Kelly, the high school principal, to assume the leadership role.
Kanter leaves June 30 and Kelly becomes the school’s head on July 1.
Kanter is pleased that Kelly is taking on the role.
“I think he knows the culture of the school that we’ve built over a long time, and that was really crucial to me,” Kanter said. “He’s a great leader, and he’s going to do wonderful things for the school.”
For his part, Kelly said he’s thrilled to be selected to lead a school that has a solid foundation and a record of excellence.
When he joined the school’s staff five years ago, Kelly said he came because it had established early childhood through middle years program and a new high school.
The school’s International Baccalaureate Program also attracted him.
“I was previously at an IB school — believe in it 100 percent — and the opportunity to grow a school and be part of that was exciting to me,” Kelly said.
He marvels at the courage that it took Kanter, her team and the CDS community to launch a high school program in an environment as competitive as it is in Tampa Bay.
When Kelly arrived, the high school’s enrollment was 62. Now, its 225. “We’re going to grow next year,” he said. The goal is to achieve an enrollment of 400-plus, he said.
There were skeptics before the school added its high school, Kanter said.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘This is not going to work,’ ” she recalled.
Recently, the Class of 2013 graduated, marking the school’s fifth crop of high school graduates.
Kelly said he plans to build on the school’s success.
“At the end of the day, we are a business. Our business is educating students in the best possible way. At the end of the day, providing them with the character so they can succeed. I want to continue to do a superb job of that.”
He also wants to raise Carrollwood Day School’s profile. He welcomes visitors to come see what the school is doing. “I want the community to get to know us more.
“I want to be a beacon in the state of Florida for a really exceptional independent school,” Kelly said.
“I think there are some things that we need to add facility-wise,” he said. “I’d love to be able to bring kids into our own gymnasium and have a pep rally. I’d love to have Friday Night Lights here. I would love to have tennis courts, where moms and students could be playing.”
On the academic front, he wants to bring in some niche programs that would allow for different options within the IB track. For instance, there may be kids who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, or there may be some who have a fascination with robotics.
He also thinks incorporating the use of technology throughout the school’s curriculum is important.
“We’ll have iPads in students’ hands from early childhood all of the way through 12th grade. It’s a big initiative that I think is important,” Kelly said, adding that the world is becoming increasingly more technological.
“I’m a big proponent of technology. I use it. I love social media. But at the same time, I think it’s imperative that, as a school, we educate parents and students and staff on the right ways to do it,” Kelly said.
Kelly said kids don’t consider the serious consequences that can arise from posts they make on social media. It’s different than it was for previous generations.
“We wrote notes and passed it to a friend,” Kelly said.
With today’s social media, communications can go viral.
Kanter said she’s ready to pass the leadership baton on to Kelly.
“You should know when it is time for somebody with new vision to take over,” said Kanter, who has worked for Carrollwood Day School for 29 years.
“I just think it’s time for somebody who’s young, who’s really into the technology and the 21st century skills,” Kanter said.
Kanter marvels at the progress the school has made over the course of three decades.
“I’m proud of what’s been accomplished here,” Kanter said. But, she’s quick to point out that the achievements are the result of the contributions made by many people, including the school’s principals Trudi Buscemi, Ellen Nafe and Kelly. She also credits board members who have played an instrumental role in helping the school to succeed. And, she points to the dedication of teachers, staff and students, as well as parental support.
“It was so many people pulling together – and I think that’s the best part of Carrollwood Day School. It’s such a community. It’s all about relationships, being there for each other,” Kanter said.
It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing.
“When I took over the school, it was $2 million in debt,” Kanter said, and the campus was in turmoil.
Parents banded together and purchased the assets from the school’s original head.
“A lot of people pitched in and helped. We had attorneys and CPAs and parents from all different walks of life. They believed in the school, and they wanted it to survive.”
At one point, it was uncertain if the teachers would get paid, but they stuck it out.
“We lost one teacher through all that,” Kanter said, estimating the school had about 40 teachers at the time.
There have been other trials, too, of a more personal nature, Kanter said.
“We’ve had staff that have lost children. We’ve had teachers who have died of cancer. We’re just a microcosm of society. All of the things that happen outside of school happen here. Just on a much smaller level.”
One of the more poignant moments during Kanter’s tenure came when a former student came back to visit.
He was one of several middle school students who had frequently been to her office, when she was the middle school principal.
She recalls him coming back and telling her: “You know, Mrs. Kanter, one thing I always liked about CDS is that I always knew I was loved.
“That has always stayed with me,” she said.
As she gets ready to step away, Kanter doesn’t expect retirement to be boring. She plans to spend more time with her grandchildren and to volunteer at the school. She also plans to do more reading, traveling and gardening.
The parting, however, is bittersweet.
“It’s sad because of all of my relationships here. All of my friends are here, because I spend all of my time here,” Kanter said.
Some Carrollwood Day School milestones
1981: Carrollwood Day School is founded as an Early Childhood Center in a storefront space on Gunn Highway
1984: CDS adds a kindergarten and the school moves into its own building on Casey Road
1986: CDS opens an elementary school on a rustic campus in Odessa
1992: CDS’ Odessa campus expands to add middle school classes
2003: CDS is named the National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership
2004: CDS named No Child Left Behind –Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education
2005: CDS becomes an IB World School, the first school on the west coast of Florida to be authorized by the International Baccalaureate Organization to offer the Primary Years Programme
2006: CDS moves to its campus location on Bearss Avenue. The school also opened a high school and welcomes its first ninth- and tenth-grade classes
2008: CDS receives authorization from the International Baccalaureate Organization for its Middle Years Programme and Diploma Programme, making CDS the sixth school in the U.S. to achieve the distinction of providing the full continuum of IB programmes.
2009: CDS receives re-accreditation from the Florida Council of Independent Schools. The school also qualifies for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. CDS graduates its first senior class.
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