Principal works on improving Halstead Academy's image

Halstead Academy Principal Jennifer Mullenax has been battling the negative perception from outsiders of her school since she took over four years ago, when even she admits there were "definitely some issues."

Now, with Halstead firmly a part of proposed plans by Baltimore County Public Schools to alleviate elementary school overcrowding in the central area of Baltimore County, Mullenax and her school have been the focus of added scrutiny from the surrounding communities — and are more than happy to show how wrong those perceptions are.

"Every single person that walks through that door is one more chip away at that perception," Mullenax said. "I've not had one person walk out of here and say, 'It's exactly what I thought it would be.'"

As the current proposals stand, the student population at Halstead, which currently boasts a science and arts magnet curriculum, would move to a new schoolhouse on the site of Loch Raven Elementary School, which is not being used as a school.

Residents of the surrounding Loch Raven Village community have come out against the plan, saying it would split their neighborhood between the new school and Pleasant Plains Elementary School.

When previous incarnations of the plan were in place, parents from the Stoneleigh Elementary School district mobilized to fight against a rumor that the Idlewylde and Loch Hill neighborhoods west of Loch Raven Boulevard would be redistricted to Halstead Academy.

Parents said at a meeting that they heard the rumor from a Halstead teacher, and although school officials never discussed it in public, the neighborhoods' residents believed they were vulnerable because of the school district boundaries. While most of Halstead's population comes from the surrounding communities east of Loch Raven Boulevard, the Glendale and Glenmont communities on the west side of Loch Raven Boulevard also are zoned for Halstead.

The parents' worries, aired at a set of community meetings, included questions about what transferring to a different school, particulary a Title 1 school, would do to their home values. Halstead is eligible for federal Title 1 funding because more than three-quarters of its students recieve free or reduced meals. Parents also had concerns about Halstead's past test scores.

Stoneleigh's test scores have been above 90 percent proficiency in math and reading for each of grades three, four and five in the past eight years. In that same span, Halstead's scores were more erratic, although since Mullenax took over in 2010, results have risen.

Fourth-grade reading scores peaked at 91.7 percent proficiency in 2013, up from 70.8-percent in 2010.

The third-grade reading proficiency dipped to 68.4-percent from 82.1 in 2012, but fifth-graders in 2013 scored at 82.2 percent proficient. In math, scores are much more stable. The school's third-graders scored 79.3 percent proficiency in 2013, up slightly from 79.1 percent in 2012, while the fourth-grade proficiency rate of 85.7 percent marked the third straight year fourth-graders were above 85 percent proficiency.

Many of those scores are improvements from prior to Mullenax's arrival, as well as the result of a set of goals she instituted when she took over. One, she said, was to improve the public's perception of the school, which she hopes the test scores will help to do.

Before she could address what people thought, she said she had to shore up the staff and faculty.

"We had to get the people not only on the right bus, but in the right seat facing the right direction," Mullenax said. "I think the teachers we have, we all share the same passion for this place."

That passion is evident to the school's parents, PTA President Danielle Watkins said.

"Being around [Mullenax] and seeing how she is with the children, being empathetic and being a mother herself, she's doing well by them," Watkins said. "She noticed things that needed to be changed off the bat, she set some things in motion and her voice was heard."

Like the principal, Watkins has taken up her school's cause with parents from other schools who have lowered opinions of the school.

"I took the initiative to do that at one of the last meetings; one of the parents was very vocal about why she didn't want the redistricting to happen," Watkins said. "We had a conversation, and I told her the benefit from my standpoint. It was a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding, to the point where people were feeding off what they heard and not really what they knew."

Mullenax's third goal, which she set in the summer of 2010, would go a long way toward continuing to change the perception and improving the school's image.

"A Blue Ribbon was my last goal, she said. "I think, to be honest with you, it's just a matter of time."

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