Principals have different approaches, same motives


It's only fitting that Bonnie Daniel is principal of Wilde Lake High School, a place students from around the globe call home.

After all, multiculturalism is why she moved to Columbia in 1970. "It was a very diverse community, all kinds of folks in all parts of the world and in the United States," she said.

And it's only fitting that Sylvia Pattillo heads Centennial High School, where students push one another for high marks more than at any other Howard County school. The school's motto: "Commitment to Excellence."

"I am goal-oriented," said Ms. Pattillo, who wears an "I Love CHS" button every day. "I strive to achieve."

She holds the same expectation for her students, who are gently reminded via almost-daily announcements.

The two principals lead their schools in their own ways -- Ms. Pattillo a little more heavy-handed, and Ms. Daniel a little less -- but they have this in common: They love children. Love them. And that's why they're in education.

Both started their careers as administrators in 1987. Ms. Pattillo was recruited from Dundalk High School in Baltimore County, and Ms. Daniel was promoted from the Howard County central office. Both thought that becoming administrators would allow them to work with teen-agers on a wider scale.

Ms. Pattillo knew from an early age that she wanted to become a teacher. "My parents told me I was born saying I wanted to be a teacher," she said. "When I played with teacups and chairs, I was always the teacher, with pencil and chalk and paper to pass out. I was the one in charge."

She still is. "If you had a problem with a student, you sent them down to her," said Pat Mongan, a teacher at Dundalk High, where Ms. Pattillo was an assistant principal for two years. "They were going to be treated fairly, because there was no nonsense.

"It was a big loss when she left," Ms. Mongan said. "She was a fantastic person for our school."

Ms. Daniel didn't learn until later in life that she wanted to teach. She had intended to go into medical research while she attended Wake Forest University, but changed her mind after working as a camp biology counselor with teen-age girls one summer. "I enjoyed it so much. Even though I told my mother I wasn't going to be a teacher, I changed my mind," she said.

Ms. Pattillo's roomy rectangular office is meticulous and organized, with files in metal cabinets and neatly piled paperwork on her desk. Framed artwork hangs on the wall and a family portrait sits on a table. Maroon carpeting makes the office feel warm and tranquil.

A corkboard cluttered with pictures of students takes up most of a wall of Ms. Daniel's angular office. A door opening to a hallway gives her immediate access to students. There's a comfortable, at-home feel, with paperwork and folders scattered everywhere and pigs all over the place -- bronze ones sit on her table, pig magnets hang on a nearby wall, and a pig doll wearing a bonnet sits on her shelf.

The pigs date to Ms. Daniel's childhood: "My dad used to tease me about being chubby," she said. When word got out about her fondness for swine, students, teachers and parents started bringing them in.

Ms. Pattillo is a take-charge person -- what needs fixing is done.

At Centennial, she recently surprised students and staff by holding lockouts, ordering teachers to lock their doors so she could round up late students and send them to the cafeteria for a lecture.

"The very first time it was a shock to students," said Ms. Pattillo. "We're not an open-campus environment. For liability reasons, we have to be accountable for every student . . . on campus during the day."

She takes a team approach to solving problems. "I would like to know what is going on, and together we make a decision," she said about her relationship with administrators and staff.

Ms. Daniel's approach is more relaxed. "My preference is to have them try to work out whatever the problem is, then give it to me," she said. "That was also my style as a teacher."

But when things in school go awry, Ms. Daniel steps in and cracks down -- some say hard. After first giving students chances, she instituted a mandatory three-day suspension for those who leave school without permission to go to the nearby village center or fast-food restaurant for lunch.

As an incentive to teachers, she rewards a free day of vacation for those who catch students off campus. Parents get upset when their children are suspended for leaving school, "but the suspensions work," she said. "We've not had repeats."

Ms. Pattillo takes her school's "Commitment to Excellence" motto to heart. Her family placed the importance of education in her and her siblings at a young age, she said.

"She always did her work, and she was always organized," said Diane Ferary, who taught Ms. Pattillo business and typing classes at Dundalk High.

"Her family was very committed to education, and it was obvious those values were imparted to her," Ms. Ferary said. "They were closely knit and had high standards."

Even now, Robert Pattillo, the principal's husband of 15 years, takes time to snip newspaper clippings for her of articles he thinks are important. They have no children.

Wilde Lake may not have a school motto, but it does have a school spirit that is reflected in Ms. Daniel, teachers say.

"She has a real firm conviction of Wilde Lake High School and what it means," said Doug Duvall, the school's football coach who has worked with Ms. Daniel for 20 years.

"The premise of our school is, we take students where they are and we take them where they need to go," said teacher Myrna Pigo, who has known Ms. Daniel for 22 years. "She helps us do that. She encourages us to use evaluative tools. We just don't measure students by paper and pencil."

"She's a very effective principal," Mr. Duvall said. "She's one of the administrators who's able to use compassion and, at the same time, demand respect from the kids."

Ms. Daniel is a divorced mother with two daughters, both of whom graduated from Wilde Lake. She lives minutes away from school in a neighborhood within Wilde Lake's boundaries.

Both principals handle discipline problems by sitting down with students and trying to learn what caused the behavior. In her 13 years as a teacher, "I sent very few kids to the office," said Ms. Daniel, putting up 10 fingers to indicate the number she reported to the principal.

"You have to give kids a lot of chances," she said. "They're just kids. They make mistakes. They do stupid things. They use bad judgment."

"Listening to what kids have to say is important," said Ms. Pattillo. "When students are suspended, they are suspended for inappropriate behavior. My desire is to try to intervene before the behavior that requires suspension."

The job puts great demands on their time, both say. "Everybody wants a piece of you -- now," said Ms. Pattillo. "'Thirty seconds.' 'I just need one minute.' 'Can I meet with you at 5:30?' You feel 99 percent of the time on the job or on call."

"The hardest part is the breadth of demands made on a principal's time," Ms. Daniel said.

Both say they enjoy their relaxation time, when they get a chance to read books and articles that don't pertain to education. Ms. Daniel takes long walks with her dog, while Ms. Pattillo cranks up the radio in her car and sings out loud as she drives to her home in Carroll County.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad