"Principal program widens in schools" ; State fellowship focuses on troubled city facilities;
Tanika White. The Sun. Baltimore, Md.: Jul 1, 2003.

Last year, state education head Nancy S. Grasmick's idea to hire accomplished principals to turn around troubled city schools was a hopeful experiment.

This year, Grasmick has declared the program a resounding success and announced yesterday the latest Distinguished Principal Fellows who will lead two more city schools with the mission of improving achievement over three years.

Paul E. Dunford, principal of Walkersville Middle School in Frederick County, and Mary M. Minter, the principal at William Paca Elementary School in East Baltimore, will join the ranks of the principals recruited a year ago. Dunford will be principal at Northeast Middle School while Minter will continue at Paca.

The fellowship's goal is to place some of the state's best academic administrators in the most challenging schools. The principals selected are also expected to groom their staff for leadership positions. The principals are paid $125,000 a year by the state, significantly more than most city principals.

Minter -- who grew up in East Baltimore, earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Morgan State University and a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- said she is honored to be the city's pioneer fellow in the program.

"I really thought I should be paid for all the hard work it takes to turn a school around. It's not an easy task," she said yesterday. "It's so refreshing to know that someone out there recognizes that."

Scores at Paca have improved in the past two years, since Minter took over, with first-grade reading scores rising from the 27th median national percentile to the 52nd percentile. In math, first- grade scores have risen from the 24th to the 52nd percentile. Both scores are just under the citywide average for first graders.

"When Mary went into [Paca], it was very troubled," Grasmick said. "We did not want to move her and risk the school declining again. It has made progress, and she's to be rewarded and recognized."
Walkersville Middle School is in a Frederick County suburb that has been changing in the last decade, Dunford said, from a rural, mostly white community to one that now includes more Hispanic and African-American families.

Earning his bachelor's degree from Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts and master's degree from Hood College, he became principal at Walkersville in 1996. There, Dunford worked to bring stability to the school and cohesion to the community.

A team effort

"What I leave behind is a school that functions at a very high level because everyone is a part of it," Dunford said. "Achievement has gone up. Kids have done things we didn't expect them to do."

Grasmick called the two principals' track records "stunning."

"What's really extraordinary is how they have been able to forge a team of people working together so that there's a focus, there's a direction," Grasmick said. "And the relationship they've had with their community, with parents."

Minter took a school that was performing poorly academically and was littered with rodent droppings, according to city school board Chairwoman Patricia L Welch, and made it attractive -- bright, clean and with books in every imaginable space.

Under her leadership, cafeteria workers painted the once-dingy dining hall and teachers came in on weekends to work, fueled by Minter's own work ethic. She arrives by 4 a.m. every day and leaves at 6:30 p.m.

"She is an example of what a good principal knows and is able to do. And she knows how to build staff to believe in and buy into the vision she has," Welch said.

Although there has been improvement, William Paca still is a school with hurdles to overcome. Pupils still score below the state average on tests, and 97 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

"We don't use that as an excuse," Minter said. "It's just a fact."

Walkersville Middle doesn't have the same sort of difficulties, Dunford said, and according to city school officials, neither does Northeast Middle -- which is in a quiet neighborhood and has test scores higher than the city average.

But leaving the Frederick County suburbs for the city will be challenging for Dunford, and not just because he'll be exchanging a two-mile commute for one that is more than an hour.

Northeast Middle is an open-space school, an outdated architectural design with few inside walls.
"That is a challenge to any principal," said Malculm L. Dates, the area academic officer for the city's middle schools. "Because the nature of the middle school student is very active, without walls it can be very distracting."

Also, 40 percent of Northeast's faculty has just two years or less of experience. And Dunford will be the school's fourth principal in as many years.

Finding stability

"There needs to be some stability there," Dates said.
Dunford, a Boston native who has taught school in Athens, Greece, said he could handle the responsibility.

"I think I have the tools to do it," he said. "I think I'm up for the challenge of a lifetime. But this is what I always wanted to do."

Strengthening Northeast Middle School is important to the school district because while the elementary schools that feed into it have solid standardized test scores, Northeast's own performance has been mediocre.

In the latest round of national standardized tests taken in March, the majority of Northeast seventh- and eighth-graders scored slightly above the 40th percentile in reading and math, far better than most city middle schools but below the perennial top schools.

From Northeast Middle, pupils go on to Lake Clifton/Eastern, one of the largest and lowest-performing high schools in the city.

This summer, however, the school system will take Northeast Middle and Thurgood Marshall Middle pupils and move them to a new high school at the Thurgood Marshall building. The intention is to provide a smaller, more rigorous environment for pupils.

"There's a lot of emphasis on high school reform now. I think the missing piece is middle school," Grasmick said.

One of Dunford's strengths in middle schools, he said, is "managing ... change in a productive way."

Bonnie Copeland, the city school system's interim chief executive officer, said the addition of the principals to the roster is an early present for her as she begins her new position today.

"The only way we're going to really improve student achievement is to have the best and the brightest teachers supporting our students and the best and the brightest principals supporting our teachers," she said. "Everything else is just window dressing."

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.