With only 10 minutes notice, the 45 teachers of Woodholme Elementary School eagerly escorted their 781 students to a mystery assembly. Principal Maralee Clark had carefully crafted what she would say to them and quickly began building the suspense.
"Boys and girls, we've won another award!" Clark said she enthusiastically told the students and staff gathered in the Pikesville school's auditorium on Jan. 17.
Next, she called various faculty members onstage one by one, purposely planting the idea that yet another Woodholme teacher had been singled out for recognition. After all, fourth-grade teacher McKinley Broome had received the Milken Educator Award in 2010 to much national fanfare.
When she finally explained they were "all winners this time" after being chosen as one of six schools to be designated a 2012 Maryland Blue Ribbon School by theU.S. Department of Education, the children screamed and applauded, Clark recalled.
"It was like they were at a rock concert. They were very exuberant and pumped up," said Clark, who opened the two-story facility on Mount Wilson Lane in 2005. For Clark, it was a relief to finally share the good news. She had kept the well-guarded secret for a month, ever since she was notified of the honor Dec. 20 by interim State Superintendent of Schools Bernard J. Sadusky.
Schools are selected on the basis of rigorous state and national requirements for high achievement and dramatic improvement, and students in each of the schools excel on state assessments in reading and mathematics, according to state education officials.
At Woodholme, an astounding 96 percent of the students — 42 percent of whom are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals — have scored at the proficient level or above on the Maryland School Assessment tests.
Measured against schools with a similar demographic, Woodholme has been ranked first in the state for those two core curricula for three consecutive years, according to Clark. The school is the 16th in Baltimore County to be singled out for the Blue Ribbon designation, chosen this year from among the state's 1,400 schools.
The five other schools chosen for the honor this year are all elementary schools scoring in the top 15 percent on Maryland School Assessment tests and are located in Anne Arundel, Harford, Montgomery, Prince George's and Worchester counties.
"We use a big magnifying glass on schools that are beating the odds," said Darla Strouse, executive director of the Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools Program. "Woodholme has a great environment, and it's working.
"The reality is that no one has gone into a wonderful school without knowing there's a wonderful principal behind it," she said.
"I have a dream job," said Clark, an Owings Mills native who left an 11-year career as a mortgage loan officer to become a teacher in 1993 at age 34. "My entire staff embraces what it means to be an educator, and we have built a culture of excellence together."
Staff and students alike refer to their principal's inspirational philosophy as "The Woodholme Way" and give her full credit for creating an atmosphere that sets the bar high.
"Everyone receives a lot of support here," said Mark Taylor, a math teacher who transferred from nearby Bedford Elementary in 2006. "Everyone knows what's expected of them and works hard to see that students reach their full potential."
That belief explains Woodholme's 99 percent staff-retention rate, says Clark, who is a first-time principal after serving as an assistant principal at Owings Mills Elementary for 11 of her 19 years as an educator. She attended that school as a child and her children also went there.
"My job is to work for the staff and to give them everything they need," she said. "I treat them like gold because they're on the front line and they're phenomenal.
"And I'm a happy, perky person," she confessed. "Hopefully, some of that enthusiasm is contagious."
Built to relieve overcrowding at New Town Elementary, which had earlier been built to reduce the population at Owings Mills Elementary, Woodholme was marketed by Clarke to prospective staff members as "dirt and dreams" during its fast-tracked construction phase, the principal said. Woodholme is currently over-capacity by 105 students, she noted.
A lot of her hires were first-time teachers and together the staff created the school's vision and mission, she said.
"You'd think that a student body this large would be difficult to manage, but it's not," said Taylor, who had briefly stepped out of his geometry class to discuss the school's success. "Every year we get bigger, but we get better."
Nowhere does the size of the student body make itself more obvious than at the annual STEM Fair, an event for all grades highlighting projects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that spills over from the cafeteria into the gym and requires the rental of additional tables to accommodate all of the students' tri-fold display boards, Clark said.
"With our focus on science, technology and math, the STEM fair is a very big deal around here," she said, noting that many elementary schools involve only fourth- and fifth-graders in their STEM or science fairs.
John Maple, a fifth-grade science teacher who coordinated this year's fair on Jan. 24, said the staff's efforts don't go unnoticed by students or parents.
"The kids know we're a really good school for them," he said. "And parents, especially those whose children have transferred here, really notice the range of before- and after-school programs and parental support we offer."
Tiffani Manning, a fourth-grader, said students "get a lot of privileges and we have great teachers who help us."
Patrick Harris, a fifth-grade student, said the school emphasis on working together has sparked his interest in entrepreneurship. "Everybody here has different strengths," he said. "But at the end of the day, everybody helps each other."
A December in-house survey of parents upholds the students' comments, showing a 98 percent approval rating and high marks for communication and innovation.
Le Tia Hooker, whose children, Lael and David, attend Woodholme, said her main concern when her family moved to Owings Mills from Georgia was "to find a school that would challenge them academically.
"I'm very impressed with the staff and my kids are very, very proud to call Woodholme their school," she said.
Key Jefferson, mother of fifth-grader Brooke White, called the school "parent-friendly," adding her family "has taken advantage of just about every program the school has to offer."
The school operates a LEGO Robotics Club, a math club and separate boys' and girls' clubs that emphasize leadership skills, among others.
"What's unique about Ms. Clark is she's the kind of principal you'd have had 20 years ago, still in the bus loop and interacting with us carpool parents every day," Jefferson said. "Her leadership is exhibited on a daily basis and she holds parents accountable. And the way she does it makes you come right on board."
The next step for Woodholme is applying in April to be named a National Blue Ribbon School, Clark said. For now, each honored school is receiving a Maryland Blue Ribbon School flag, a $2,000 monetary prize, an interactive Smart Board and a schoolwide pizza party. A dinner will be held in honor of the six winning schools on March 19.
In the meantime, staff members will continue to uphold "The Woodholme Way," the principal said.
"Every day we're going to work our hearts out to do our best for the kids," she said. "Demonstrating enthusiasm for learning is what works."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun