In the realm of elementary school principals, one idea appears to be a given: There is no such thing as a bad child or one without potential.
"If a child misbehaves or engages in bad behavior, you have to look beyond it to see the cause. There is a key to every child, but no one ever said it's easy to find it," said Elkridge Elementary Principal Mary Jane Mitchell.
Talbott Springs Principal Thomas J. Brown said, "What I have found out is that many kids who we think are lacking in motivation or intelligence simply aren't. I think that they have not found what we're teaching them or how we are teaching them inviting."
For a combined 42 years, Mr. Brown and Mrs. Mitchell have put this philosophy to work for Howard County children.
But when 1,600 children return to the two schools next fall, Mr. Brown, 62, and Mrs. Mitchell, 57, won't be there to greet them. Both are retiring from the schools but will continue to work in education.
"Mr. Brown, like Mrs. Mitchell, has been outstanding in terms of working with the school system and working with the community at large," said Edward Alexander, Howard director of elementary schools.
When selecting replacements for the two principals, Dr. James McGowan, Howard County's associate superintendent for instruction and administration, asked both schools' PTAs what qualities they wanted in their new principals.
The Elkridge PTA had no trouble expressing what kind of person they wanted: someone like Mrs. Mitchell. "The school system's really going to miss her. It'll be a hard pair of shoes to fill," said Cindy Burton, a member of the Elkridge PTA executive board.
Mrs. Mitchell, who started her career in Prince George's County in 1959, said children will always be creative, curious and fun but that they are not as innocent as their counterparts 30 years ago.
On a field trip with her third-grade class back then, a novelty for one little boy was an elevator. "Never would that happen today," Ms. Mitchell said. "Many children were sent to us almost like a blank slate. That isn't true anymore. . . . They're a lot more aware of things. . . . There are a lot more problems they're dealing with today."
After 10 years in Prince George's schools, Mrs. Mitchell decided to enter administration. She supervised student teachers at the University of Maryland and was assistant principal at Lisbon and Bryant Woods elementaries in Howard County.
Since 1987, when she took over as principal at Elkridge, the school's population has doubled, from 400 to more than 800 students, and the school moved in 1992 to its new building on Montgomery Road.
After guiding the school through this growth, Mrs. Mitchell said, it is time for her to leave.
Some of her students were confused by seeing Mrs. Mitchell behind the counter at McDonald's during a school fund-raiser last winter, and the rumor spread that she was taking a job there full-time.
The real reason she is leaving, she said, is that "I have 30 years in, and my husband's been retired for several years. I just have other things I would like to do."
After a two-week summer cruise, she will work to encourage partnerships between businesses and schools with the Maryland Business Round Table, a nonprofit organization.
Elkridge's new principal will be Dr. Diane Mumford, now assistant principal at Rockburn Elementary.
After leaving Talbott Springs, Mr. Brown will continue to teach elementary education at Loyola College's graduate school, where he has taught since 1983. This fall, his third book, "A Rebirth of Common Sense in Education," will be available. Starting with a one-year Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1970, Mr. Brown has searched for effective ways to increase achievement among minorities.
His 10 years as a teacher in Baltimore and 22 years in Howard County -- eight at Talbott Springs and 14 as principal at two middle schools and two other elementary schools -- have given him a certain touch with students. "He's cool," said fourth-grader Eric Lee. "He's excellent. He's the backbone of the school, and he wants to really see people learn and get a good education. He doesn't boss them around just because he's the principal. He acts like the kids' friend."
Orrester Shaw Jr., now principal of Baltimore's Douglass High School, will take over Talbott Springs in the fall. Mr. Shaw was sent to Douglass in March 1994 to raise standards.
"He has a sterling reputation," Mr. Brown said of his replacement. "And I'm sure Talbott Springs will continue to move in the direction it has been for the past couple years."
Fredrika Hill, principal at Swansfield Elementary School for the past two years and a part of the Howard school system for 25 years, is also retiring at the end of the school year. She did not respond to phone messages. Swansfield's new principal will be Karen Ganjon, now director of the state Department of Education's Challenge/Reconstituted Schools programs.