Ashley Cook-Plymouth remembers using her family's shed as a fantasy schoolhouse when she was a child in northern Virginia.
"I was always the teacher," she said. "I always knew I wanted to be a teacher."
She and her sister and best friend turned a wall of the shed in Woodbridge, Va., into a chalk board, except that they used crayons instead of chalk.
"My dad didn't like it too much."
As a high school student, she was in the National Education Association's Future Teachers program.
A graduate of Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, Cook-Plymouth earned a masters degree in arts and teaching from Johns Hopkins University.
Now, at 31, Cook-Plymouth is the new principal of the Mount Washington School, one of Baltimore's best-performing public schools, with nearly 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and scores consistently in the 90s on state-mandated reading and math tests.
The school year starts Aug. 25, with a Sneak A Peek event for families Aug. 22.
"We're ready for children," said Cook-Plymouth, who brought in Georgia Woerner, former assistant principal at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, as assistant principal of the Mount Washington School.
Cook-Plymouth succeeds Sue Torr, a veteran principal at the school since 2008 who led it to Blue Ribbon status in 2011. Torr now is executive director for principal support and accountability for a network of schools in the city school system.
Torr left Mount Washington School earlier this year and Lydia Lemon, former principal of Tunbridge charter school in Govans, came out of retirement to serve as the interim principal until Cook-Plymouth was named principal in July.
Cook-Plymouth, who lives in the Hamilton area, has taken an unusual path to the principalship. She is a product of Baltimore City Teaching Residency, an alternative teacher certification program that she compares to Teach for America.
She started teaching fifth grade at William Paca Elementary School in East Baltimore and later served for 18 months as city schools associate on a Joint Governing Panel that was formed as part of the implementation of a new teachers' contract in 2011.
But she said, "I really missed working with students. I was missing the school setting."
She later worked as a literacy liaison from the Office of School Support Networks and gained an appreciation of coaching and professional development of teachers.
Cook-Plymouth said she began to hear that schools were losing teachers because of a perceived lack of institutional support. That led to her desire to become a principal.
She was accepted into New Leaders, a national nonprofit that develops transformational school leaders in urban areas and designs leadership policies and practices for school systems across the country, according to its website. The nonprofit has locations in 10 jurisdictions, including Baltimore, Washington, New York and Chicago.
"Nationally, the turnover rate for urban principals is high and the need is great," she said.
Like a doctor doing a residency, she became the resident principal of Green Street Academy, a charter school that she said focuses on healthy and sustainable living. The school had a chicken farm and a tilapia farm in the basement, she said.
"It really is your year of real practice," Cook-Plymouth said. "I evaluated [teachers], supervised them and coached them. I've had to write people up."
Torr and the school system laid much of the groundwork for Cook-Plymouth at Mount Washington. The school now houses kindergarten through eighth grade and is candidate school for an International Baccalaureate program. It has taken over the former Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic School building for a lower school, with its upper school in the original building on Sulgrave Avenue. The school's name has also changedfrom Mount Washington Elementary/Middle School to the Mount Washington School.
Now, says Cook-Plymouth, it is up to her to maintain the school's academic excellence at a time when the state is changing its assessment tests in reading and math from the Maryland School Assessment to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
"I'm very privileged and fortunate to inherit this gem of a school," she said, adding that Torr has been a big help to her this summer.
Torr is rooting for her.
"Ms. Cook is ready for the challenge of principal at The Mount Washington School," Torr wrote in an email. "She is knowledgeable about curriculum and instruction and will be able to motivate the very talented and dedicated staff to develop the expertise necessary to implement (new testing standards). I know she will cultivate great relationships with the students and the families. The school is lucky to have such a qualified principal."
Also excited is Tammy Stinnett, president of the school's Parents-Teachers Organization.
"Principal Cook possesses the major qualities we need in a principal and I look forward to her leadership," Stinnett wrote. "I am confident that she will prove to be a perfect fit for our Blue Ribbon school and the Mt. Washington community. She has big shoes to fill after Principal Torr's departure; however, it will be important that she brings her own initiatives in order to advance the school to the next level."
Cook-Plymouth has already taken on one big project with the help of Stinnett and Stinnett's husband, Sean, a member of the school's Family Council. They've reclaimed an old and overgrown school Learning Garden in a courtyard of the upper building. There, students will be able to grow radishes, lettuce and tomatoes, among other produce, and learn about the carbon cycle and other science and environmental lessons.
"It's been underused," Cook-Plymouth said.
She said she is excited, though nervous, about her new job.
Mostly, she feels like she did as a child in her shed.
"I'm just ready for school to begin."