Two Harford County public school administrators have been singled out as the best in the state for 2013.
The Maryland Association for Secondary School Principals named Edgewood High School's Larissa Santos Principal of the Year, while the state's Association of Elementary School Principals named Havre de Grace Elementary's Ron Wooden Assistant Principal of the Year.
Staff and students at both Edgewood and Havre de Grace, where a spirit of excitement and a sense of family are palpable, said the awards to their top leaders are well-deserved.
'Like the Magic Kingdom'
At Havre de Grace Elementary School, life is a celebration, and students dress up for annual Fun Days and are greeted each morning with music and dancing. At the center of it is former assistant principal and now interim principal Ron Wooden, a vibrant whirl of activity whom staff members call a role model, a cheerleader and a character.
"It's just been like a breath of fresh air having him here," Ann Muir, a Havre de Grace Elementary teacher for 30 years, said. "He is 100 percent behind his teachers and 100 percent behind his children."
Wooden has served since 2011 as assistant principal at Havre de Grace, where he arrived after serving as assistant principal at Aberdeen's George D. Lisby Elementary School since 2009.
After Principal Renee Villareal was promoted to school improvement and intervention coordinator, Wooden stepped in as interim principal in January.
"Serve" is an operative word for Wooden, who attributes his award to the school staff and the Harford County community, not just himself.
"This award does not represent Ron Wooden. This award represents Havre de Grace Elementary School," he said. "One of my favorite passages in the Good Book is, 'I have come to serve, not be served.'"
Wooden spoke seriously about the importance of a principal understanding the institution and child development.
"I think the fact that I am visible, seeing what children are doing, makes a difference in the lives of the children," he said.
With administrators, "I am here and I am willing to listen and willing to roll up my sleeves and willing to help them with their craft as teachers."
Havre de Grace Elementary is a Title 1 school, with more than 69 percent of the school's students living in poverty.
Wooden, who was Harford County's Teacher of the Year in 2008, said that was how he grew up in Philadelphia.
Now 37, he knew he wanted to become a teacher since his second-grade teacher, Joan Godwin, inspired him.
But beyond his commitment to teaching "deportment skills" and helping teachers, Wooden clearly knows how to have a good time.
Together with Villareal, Wooden said he helped craft a vision of the school as a destination and an exciting place.
Their inspiration? DisneyWorld.
"This is like the Magic Kingdom," Wooden said from inside his cheerful office, decorated with children's handwritten cards and canisters covered with the word "Believe."
Dan Zubrowski, a Havre de Grace teacher since 2006, said Wooden regularly gives out gifts and is not afraid to dress up or party with the staff and students.
Since Wooden's arrival, "it's just been like a blast of honest energy," he said. "If someone gets any kind of recognition, Ron is dousing your classroom with streamers and balloons."
"They are just always doing things to make us stay positive, and you realize we haven't been paid [raises] in six years or haven't gotten the step [increases], but who cares?" Zubrowski said.
Third-grader Nina Armstrong said Wooden once heard her and other students sing "Let It Go," the hit song from the movie "Frozen," on the school's news show.
"He called us down so we could sing it to him and he gave us a teacher pin," Nina said.
She and other students called Wooden "really fun" and "a great principal."
"He lets us have fun in our class and lets us do a lot of things," fifth-grader Christopher Breeden said.
When they heard about Wooden's award, the students all wore Wooden masks and celebrated with balloons and pictures of him.
"He always stands up in the lobby and he shakes our hand," Nina said, adding that Wooden has gotten students to dress up for Dr. Seuss Week and Rock Star Day.
As a student at a Philadelphia performing arts school, Wooden once considered being an opera singer. But now, he said, there is no place he would rather be than inside the walls of a school building.
"Honestly, I have been blessed over the past 15 years to serve this [school] district," he said. "I don't take for granted, not one day, that I am in this position."
Larissa Santos, the principal at Edgewood High for seven years, never wanted to work in a school.
She studied political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and planned to become an attorney.
But growing up in a family of educators in Laredo, Texas, she found destiny would eventually lead her into the classroom. Now 43, Santos ended up at a school that some might have avoided.
She got a job at Uvalde High School, in Texas, which, like Edgewood, had been a low-performing school.
Since then, Santos has never looked back, leading thousands of students and teachers in her quiet but forceful style.
"I like working in difficult populations," she said, recalling that Edgewood High was on the verge of corrective action when she stepped in 13 years ago. "I think it was an environment that I had always known and I knew that I could make a difference there."
Edgewood's graduating classes average 270 students, where once they were down to about 200, she said.
The school's spirit comes through in slogans like "We Are Edgewood" emblazoned in the hallways and its popular schoolwide "lip-dub" videos, which have become an annual event.
"To think that I alone did that is ludicrous," Santos said, noting she was hesitant about the lip-dubs.
"I was scared," she said of the video. "When you have 1,300 students out of class at the same time and it's supposed to be just spirit, there's so many things that could go wrong."
Santos acknowledged it took her a while to release control and let others lead as well.
"One of the reasons Edgewood has been able to turn a corner is we try every step of the way to have shared decisions," she explained. "I have kind of learned to get out of the way."
Santos, who lives in Bel Air, was just as modest about the latest state award, shying away from any mention of the spotlight.
"I am not really an awards-type person. I lead a school," she said, calling the award "about my kids. I think it's a great opportunity to showcase Edgewood. It's a great opportunity to see that great things are happening in this building, because for a long time, I don't think that was the impression."
Staff members like Assistant Principal Carlton Ford have noticed the difference.
"It's really better than what it was in the past – the whole culture, the whole community," he noted.
Teacher Craig Llewellyn called Santos' award "well-deserved."
"The instructional standards that she sets for the building are really high and she does a really good job staying on top of the changing shifts in education," he said.
Katherine Cruz, a junior who helped nominate Santos for the award, said she was a "fantastic" principal.
Katherine said Santos helped push her brother, an Edgewood alum, to do better when he was struggling academically.
"Ms. Santos was constantly there, encouraging him," she said, noting her generation is the first in her family to graduate from high school.
She also said it helps that Santos is bilingual, so she was able to speak with Katherine's parents in Spanish.
"I feel like she is able to fulfill any role that she needs to," Katherine said about her principal. "I see her as a role model, especially being a woman and being able to carry such a large weight on her shoulders."