This principal is diving right into the future

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

It is dismissal time at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, and the children are restless as mustangs in a crowded corral.

In a rear hallway next to the parking lot exit, they struggle to stay in line, fidgeting with rain jackets and backpacks.

The teachers ride herd gently but firmly, keeping their classes together until each gets the signal to dismiss.

Then, one by one, the classes head out the door, children galloping across the rainy school yard under colorful umbrellas.

Presiding over all of this, in person, is Deborah Wortham, the school's dynamic new principal.

"I stand at the door, and I can account for every class," says Wortham, who started the new, more orderly dismissal policy when she took over in August.

Wortham's calm, authoritative presence is evident throughout the 560-student West Baltimore school that principal and staff insist on calling "Sensational" Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Her changes offer a glimpse of what could happen system-wide under a restructuring plan approved by the city school board last week.

The long-awaited restructuring plan is intended to decentralize control of the city's schools, giving local schools more authority over their educational programs.

Though schools could adopt a variety of approaches to restructuring, involving teachers, parents and community leaders, the school principal will play a key role in each.

So far, more than two dozen schools, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, have applied for 20 slots in the three-year pilot program, due to start next September.

But Wortham isn't waiting.

Already this year, she has made a number of changes that could fit within the definition of "restructuring." Among them:

* Eliminating "tracked" home-room classes in the third grade, which had been organized into three groups according to reading ability.

* Arranging to have teacher's assistants on duty at 8 a.m., rather than at 8:10 a.m., to help escort children from the buses -- the kind of scheduling change that has sometimes frustrated administrators.

* Forming a "family-assistance team" that links the school social worker, counselor, parent liaison and psychologist.

And, if the school is selected for the pilot program, Wortham and her staff would have even more flexibility in making changes -- along with a $15,000 in start-up funds.

Even if Wortham's school is not selected, by making a number of significant changes this year "the statement we made is 'well, we're restructuring already,' " she says.

"I think it's all about cooperative management," says Vera Holley, the school's master teacher. "We're all having a hand in the say-so of how this building is being run."

But others at the school caution that local control also puts an added responsibility on the staff.

"When they say 'restructure to meet your children's needs,' you're more accountable," says Mary Drake, the school's speech pathologist. "Restructuring is very easy, but improvement is difficult."

FULL SPEED AHEAD

The principal can be a powerful engine for change, and Wortham is moving ahead full-throttle in her first outing as a chief administrator.

In college and in later life, she says, "the motivating force was my sister." That enduring inspiration came about this way, she recalls.

While she was in high school, "my sister had multiple sclerosis . . FTC

. I took care of her. I gave up dating and the whole bit, just to take care of my sister."

One weekend, Wortham was scheduled for a pre-enrollment visit to the University of Wisconsin and hesitated because her sister was sick.

But Wortham's sister encouraged her to make the visit, telling her, "I want you always to remember to be the best of all you can be."

Wortham's sister died that weekend, but her message has survived.

"That thought always stayed with me, 'Be the best you always can be,' " Wortham says. "When you are the very best that you can be, you have a very profound impact on those around you.

"I never ask anybody to do anything that I won't do," she adds.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1971 and has been with the Baltimore City school system since 1972 when she landed her first full-time assignment as a first-grade teacher.

She has served in a variety of teaching and administrative jobs since then, most recently as an assistant principal at Harford Heights Elementary School.

And, in August, she took over at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a large elementary school named after a turn-of-the-century composer of African descent.

She approaches her new assignment with the zeal of a missionary.

"When I came to this school, I saw a need to clean, and I started to clean up," she says.

She started with the school building itself. A typical example: having weeds cleared from around the building by work-release inmates.

"Who wants to come to a school you where you have to step over the weeds?" she asks. "You don't." In addition, "Our carpet has been cleaned, some classrooms have been painted. You must use your resources."

PARENTS APPROACHED

Wortham also reached out to parents of children attending the school, in a low-income, high-crime area off Martin Luther King Boulevard, near the George B. Murphy Homes, a public housing project.

"I walked from door to door, introducing myself," she says. "They were in shock. 'A principal coming to meet me?' A parent hears from administrators when something is wrong."

She got volunteers to paint room numbers on the playground and required, for the first time, that children line up by class outside the school each morning.

And she held an orientation meeting for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten children and their parents.

Wortham also got teachers involved in revamping the way students are grouped in the third grade.

Until this year, a third-grade child's home room was determined by that child's reading ability, a system Wortham rejected. The new principal asked the teachers themselves to come up with changes.

Together, they spread students with different reading abilities throughout the three classes.

"When I allowed them to make the decision, they had to own that decision -- and it gave them empowerment," Wortham says. "And that is very significant in restructuring."

"It was definitely a popular move forward," says Julie Kelber, a third-grade teacher. Students are "better off in helping each other when they have differing abilities."

And Wortham made other, less dramatic changes to improve the school's atmosphere.

She dubbed the lunchroom the "Finer Diner," and insisted on a quiet eating environment.

She tells children to walk "like marshmallows" through the halls -- and recently rewarded third-grade classes by passing out marshmallows as a token of good behavior.

The little things are important for achievement, she says. "When the climate is right, everybody is motivated. The stage is set."

Her efforts are bearing fruit, say some parents and teachers.

"There's a big difference in the kids," says Olean Gilmore, a parent volunteer with two children in the school. "Last year, you couldn't even come in the door without [observing] running in the halls, yelling and screaming."

Drake, the speech pathologist, says Wortham demands a high level of commitment from her teachers.

"This is a rough school, it's like coming into a combat zone," she says. But this year, "halls are much quieter, the cafeteria is wonderful. . . . I think that is Mrs. Wortham's doing."

Wortham also has set a goal of 15 months' academic growth for the current school year. That is an ambitious mark for an inner-city elementary school, where students often lag behind.

High expectations and plenty of hard work are the keys, the principal says.

"Reap and sow, sowing and reaping," she explains. "And then, when the harvest comes in, you can stand back and say, 'it's good.' "

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