School of hard knocks?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Principal Clark R. Powell came to Randallstown High School )) two years ago because he liked working in challenging schools. But he found more challenges than he had bargained for.

The northwest Baltimore County school has been troubled by fights, racial tensions, arson and a mass defection of faculty since his arrival. One teacher who left Randallstown said "working in a 7-Eleven might be a better deal."

Many parents say they fear for their children's safety. This winter, county school officials took the unusual step of assigning a director to Randallstown to concentrate on academics while Mr. Powell and four assistant principals concentrate on maintaining discipline at the 1,250-student school.

Critics say Mr. Powell has alienated faculty and staff with an authoritarian style. After his first year, at least 27 of 80 teachers left the school, including the heads of the English, social studies, music and foreign language departments. This year, 19 teachers have asked for transfers.

Some parents support and respect Mr. Powell's work, and some students say Randallstown High is taking a bad rap when in fact it has some strong programs, including a thriving National Honor Society, successful theater productions, and a challenging program for gifted students.

Even so, these are not easy times for the school or the 45-year-old principal who came here from Benton Harbor (Mich.) High School in 1993. "I've walked into a hornet's nest of differing ideas and perceptions of what needs to happen at Randallstown," Mr. Powell said.

He said wants to give the school more focus and direction, but the problems don't seem to be abating. "This has been the most stressful year I've ever had in my career," he said.

Mr. Powell attributes many of the problems to demographic changes in the Randallstown area, which has become the center of the county's growing black population.

According to school system enrollment reports, Randallstown's nonwhite population has increased from 58 percent in 1991-1992 to 80 percent this school year.

"It's a school in transition," said Superintendent Stuart Berger, who otherwise would say nothing about Randallstown's problems or Mr. Powell.

This school year in particular has been marked by disturbing incidents, including at least five fires of suspicious origin in bathrooms, locker rooms and closets. Driving to school some mornings, Mr. Powell says he prays, "Lord, just let me get through this day without a fire."

Seventy-eight fights have occurred at the school this school year, and officials have handed out at least 239 suspensions, compared with 242 for the entire 1993-1994 school year. In January, the fights seemed to mushroom. Some had racial overtones.

"There are, like, fights, but what school doesn't have fights, you know?" said Heather Noda, a 15-year-old sophomore. "Most of them are not racial."

'The last straw'

But in February, a racially tinged fight in the school parking lot brought the issue to a boil. "For certain parents, that was the last straw," Mr. Powell said.

A half-dozen parents kept their children home for a week. Soon after, many white parents at a meeting of 200 parents told the administration that the school was unsafe for white students.

Some students say the problem is overstated. Senior Rachel Jablon said it's "the adults of the community who are blowing it out of proportion." She said there are fewer fights now than when she arrived as a freshman.

Nonetheless, the school implemented a "Zero Tolerance Discipline" policy, in which police are called whenever there is a fight. Several other county high schools credit similar policies with reducing violence.

Disruptions still occur. On March 17, about 200 students walked out of school after they learned that school officials, worried about racial tensions, wanted to cancel an April 5 assembly with filmmaker Spike Lee.

Mr. Powell used a megaphone to coax students from the school parking lot back into the auditorium. The ultimate decision: The assembly will go on as an optional, after-school event.

Meanwhile, Patsy Holmes, director of high schools for the northwest region, was sent to Randallstown in February. While school officials reject the widely held idea that she is "co-principal," she will stay at least through April to help with instruction while Mr. Powell concentrates on keeping order.

"There's no question that the discipline has eroded to require a full-court press," said Michael Riley, the northwest area superintendent who dispatched her.

Mrs. Holmes visits classrooms, observes instruction and offers teachers support. "What we're finding is that instruction is being delivered," she said, but teachers "are having a lot of discipline problems, and that's consuming too much of their time."

Mr. Powell praised Mrs. Holmes as a good administrator, but said, "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me that they need to send a director to do anything with me."

"I understand the rationale behind it. From a professional standpoint, I feel like that's sort of a reflection on me, but I don't take it personally."

Mr. Powell rates his overall performance as 8.5 on a scale of 10. He said he has worked long hours to end entrenched, archaic policies, held assemblies without incident when there had been violence before, established events to recognize student achievement and started a mass communications program.

"I'm a risk-taker, I'm an innovator, and I do a lot of things that people say can't be done."

In the hallway recently, a student approached the principal and told him he had just passed his written driver's test. Mr. Powell beamed and shook the boy's hand. "Kids love me. I can't help that," he said later.

A mixed report card

In fact, students and teachers give him a mixed report card. Former teachers say he has disregarded their views on administrative changes. For example, he plans to switch the school schedule from a seven-period day to a four-period day next fall even though teachers have voted against it three times.

Some students say that while Mr. Powell is likable, he has broken promises to them and has too many inflexible rules.

"I understand some of the things he [is] doing -- he just goes about it the wrong way," said Tarsha Cooper, 16. "He [would] rather for people to fear him, rather than be his friend."

Several former staffers said Mr. Powell is well-meaning and willing to tackle problems head-on.

"The kids here are working hard for the most part," said Bill Fornoff, a retired librarian now working as a long-term substitute.

"True, it has problems, and teachers leave. I would never say that the administration chases people out."

Other teachers who are no longer at the school disagreed, but would only speak on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

"I really can't tell you the degree to which the staff was disheartened. . . . With Clark and the problems that both were and were not his fault, I felt that I had to go," one said.

Said another: "You were walking on eggshells all the time. The student population had become unruly, but you could deal with that. . . . The school had been having problems, but he intensified them." As a result, she said, instead of staying late to work with students, many teachers began leaving as soon as classes ended to escape the atmosphere.

One white teacher was nervous about Mr. Powell's often-stated plan to recruit more black teachers, saying it left "the impression that if you were white, you were in the wrong school."

Other reasons

Mr. Powell shrugs off many faculty transfers, saying some teachers left to work closer to home, to take promotions or because they weren't performing to his satisfaction. Several former teachers said they left for reasons unrelated to school conditions.

But Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said, "Anytime you get that many requests to transfer, you have to look at the administration."

Parent Nicole Harryman said the exodus has harmed the school. "When you literally strip a school . . . you are going to create turmoil."

Mr. Powell concedes he may be abrasive. "My aggressiveness is probably something I might want to think about trying to temper a little more. I might want to be a little more of a cheerleader," he said.

Some students say things would be easier if more people were on Mr. Powell's side.

Said sophomore Heather Noda: "I just think if he had more help from the student body and the parents, he could probably principalize the school better."

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