Ridgely Middle School principal named finalist for national award

Ridgely Middle School Principal Susan Evans was in the dark as the new school year approached. The power was out in the building Aug. 13.

But Evans, 60, cheerfully recalled the days when she started as an educator in 1970 and there was none of the technology we take for granted now.

"There were no computers. We had typewriters," she said. "There were duplicating machines. There was duplicating fluid next to the machines. You hand-cranked your 150 copies."

Evans is starting her 12th year as Ridgely Middle principal and her 40th year as an educator, all in Baltimore County.

Now, that experience is paying off in national recognition. Evans, of Hunt Valley, has been named middle school principal of the year by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, and now is one of six finalists for national middle school principal of the year, as chosen by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Evans expects to learn in October whether she has won the top honor.

It's a heady time for the down-to-earth Evans, who began her career as a teacher and team leader at Deep Creek Middle in Essex. Evans moved on to science department chair at Woodlawn Middle and Perry Hall Middle, then became assistant principal at Old Court Middle before coming full circle back to Deep Creek Middle as assistant principal. She was assistant principal of Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex before coming to Ridgely Middle for her first principalship in 2003.

At that time, the school's average test scores on state-mandated reading and math tests were in the high 70s and low 80s. "Not bad at all," Evans said.

But she wanted more.

"When I looked at the community and the quality of the school, I knew we could become that blue ribbon school," she said, describing the neighborhood as "solid middle class."

In 2006, Ridgely Middle achieved National Blue Ribbon status and its test scores were in the 90s.

Since then, Evans and her school have flown under the radar, quietly and effectively educating a student body of 1,100 that is about 73 percent white, 8 percent black and 3.5 percent Hispanic, with about 13 percent of the students in the school's federally funded Free and Reduced Meals program.

Last year, "We were one of the highest-performing middle schools in Baltimore County, if not the highest," Evans said.

But Evans wasn't seeking publicity, and although she was anonymously nominated multiple times for middle school principal of the year honors, she never got around to filling out the time-consuming application forms with three years' worth of student achievement data and several 400-word essays about the culture she had developed in the building.

But this year, with county schools changing to a different testing system, Evans figured it would be her last opportunity to provide solid data to promote her school. She also felt a little guilty.

"We all ask our students to participate and put ourselves out there. I figured I had to do the same thing."

This time, she took the trouble of filling out the application for state honors.

"I probably ruminated with it about a month," she said.

Earlier this year, she got a stern phone call from a staff member, calling to her to the school cafeteria with the admonition, "You are needed here."

She went, "expecting trouble," and found her family there, along with cheering students and the executive director of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, Scott Pfeifer. That's how she found out she had won the state honor. She received her trophy at an association conference in Ocean City in March and earlier this month learned she was a finalist for the national award, immediately winning a $1,500 grant that she plans to use in consultation with her staff.

Being a national finalist meant filling out more forms and writing more essays. It also meant organizing her leadership team of staff and parents at the school and doing a joint conference call with the judges for the national association.

Next month, she will go to Capitol Hill to be honored as a finalist and make another presentation to a panel of judges.

Then, it will be all over but the waiting. She could be the first principal in Baltimore County to win the honor.

"I'm humbled," Evans said. She said that win or lose, "I look forward to talking about our school. It gives me a forum to talk about all the good things we've done."

When asked why she has spent her career in Baltimore County, she answered, "Why not? They've certainly entrusted me to be a leader of a school."

She has no plans to retire any time soon.

"I could have retired 15 years ago," she said. "I'm not ready. My work here is not done. We've got a good thing going."

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