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Baltimore County Principal of the Year restores pride at Towson's Halstead Academy

Halstead Academy's Jennifer Mullenax, right, was named Principal of the Year by Baltimore County Public Schools on Wednesday, May 6. Here, Mullenax works with students at the Towson school.
Halstead Academy's Jennifer Mullenax, right, was named Principal of the Year by Baltimore County Public Schools on Wednesday, May 6. Here, Mullenax works with students at the Towson school. (Submitted photo)

When Jennifer Mullenax walked into Halstead Academy five years ago, she didn't get a positive impression. She'd just been named principal of the then-failing Baltimore County elementary school at 1111 Halstead Road in Towson. On Wednesday, Mullenax was named the county's Principal of the Year, a testament to the difference she has made.

Mullenax deflects credit for turning the school into what is now considered a model in the county. She praises the dedicated teachers and staff. She talks about the supportive parents and Halstead community.

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"The sign on my door says, 'Principal.' But I tell everyone, 'This is not my school. This is our school,'" said Mullenax.

Halstead Academy is an elementary community magnet school with a focus on arts and science. It has 535 students from a part-time, three-year-old program to full-time grades kindergarten through fifth.

In the five years Mullenax has been principal, the demographics of the school have not changed. Student composition is 90 percent African American. Eighty-five percent of the students receive free or reduced meals.

As a community magnet school, students within its boundaries are accepted first. Ninety-five percent of the current enrollment comes from the neighborhood. There is a waiting list of 88 students from outside who want to enroll. Five years ago, "there was one, if that," Mullenax said.

A New Jersey native, Mullenax, 37, has bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Towson University and Goucher College, and is working toward a PhD at Towson. She and her husband, Todd, a salesman, have two daughters, Riley, 5, and Reghan, 3. The family lives in Bel Air.

Mullenax has classroom and administrative experience. What struck her when she entered Halstead, which was one year away from being restructured because of poor student performance, was the lack of pride in the school.

"It wasn't a community," she said of faculty and parent relationships, and of cohesive instruction from classroom to classroom.

Mullenax spent her first year observing teachers, talking to students and getting input from parents. The result was a vision statement that spelled out expectations and how they would be achieved.

"We don't lower our expectations. My job is to raise up students to meet them," Mullenax said. "Everyone here has to believe in our vision."

Halstead now extends its curriculum "outside the walls," said Mullenax, meaning that every grade from kindergarten through fifth has at least one off-site environmental and one arts experience per year.

They range from trips to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Washington, D.C., and from the Walters Art Gallery to the skipjack "Martha Lewis."

The school holds monthly family nights, usually with at least 250 parents and children in attendance. Experts from the field give workshops at science night, math night, environment night and others. "This is an opportunity for parents to learn what their children are learning," Mullenax said.

The path to Principal of the Year began last February, when Baltimore County Public School sought nominations, according to Christina Byers, BCPS executive director of leadership development.

The application process required input from at least one teacher, one student and one parent or community member from each school. Twenty-one principals were nominated, and a panel rated them on a scoring system.

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Byers says that input about Mullenax highlighted her creation of a shared vision for staff and community, building relations with the community and working with staff to customize professional development.

In presenting the award, Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance called Mullenax a "true leader," who has shown "how a school can thrive with the right combination of leadership, energy, attitude and support."

Mullenax gave credit to the adults - faculty, staff and parents - who make up the school community.

"Their mindset has changed and because of that, Halstead has changed," she said.

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