Principal promises school 'renaissance' Fresh hope: Barry Williams was sent to Randallstown High to confront a host of problems, and many say he's quickly established a new atmosphere


Barry Williams likes to say there is a renaissance in progress at Randallstown High School -- "a renaissance of excellence."

That makes the dapper Mr. Williams the renaissance man -- the new principal sent to revive a school troubled last year by discipline problems, disgruntled teachers, arsons and racial unrest in the majority-black student body.

When school opened last month, Randallstown had shining floors, replacements for at least half of the staff, a four-period day instead of the more traditional seven periods, more rules -- and more students than expected. It also had enough quiet that some teachers asked whether all the students really were there.

"I'm not going to pretend that I have all the answers," says Mr. Williams, 41. "I would be foolish to say that things have changed overnight."

But he knows what he likes: a clean school -- he stops often to pick up bits of trash as he walks the halls. A businesslike atmosphere. Rules firmly enforced. And above all, respect -- "for yourselves, for the staff, for each other, for the building," he told his students early.

Now, after four weeks of school, students no longer are "bailing ++ out," as Assistant Superintendent Michael Riley described last spring's transfers. Randallstown has 1,240 students -- up from the expected enrollment of 1,212 -- and more are enrolling each day. Attendance is averaging about 95 percent, up from 83 percent in the last quarter of last year, though tardiness remains a problem.

"There's a totally different atmosphere," says Mark Beytin, chairman of the math department. "To a person really, the attitude is extremely positive."

Some students say there are too many rules and school isn't fun anymore. Others are disappointed that favorite teachers are gone.

But many people at Randallstown like the Williams style.

"He's out with the crowd. He's easy to talk to and honest," says 10th-grade class president Jason Manns.

"He has done a magnificent job making all of us, new and old, young and old, feel like we're family," said Claudette Cook-Womack, one of two new deans of students at the school.

Though he's a newcomer to Randallstown professionally, Mr. Williams long has had ties to the school. He has lived nearby for 12 years. His older son graduated from the school in 1991 and his wife, Linda, taught there for eight years.

He is a quiet man, unhurried and rarely rattled, say those who know him well. Impeccably dressed, he appears a bit formal in a world of teen-agers. At noon on the first day of school, his double-breasted suit coat was still buttoned and his tie unmussed.

"Barry relax?" jokes Anna Knauer, guidance chairperson at Rosedale Alternative Center, where Mr. Williams was principal last year. "He takes so little time for himself," she said.

"He's happy when he's working really, really hard," says his wife, Linda, head of the English department at Woodlawn High School. "He's always worked long hours," so the 12-hour days at Randallstown aren't new. When he's not working, Mr. Williams ++ plays racquetball, piano and cards, among other interests.

By his own admission, Mr. Williams is a dreamer and optimist.

Those who work with him say he also is well-organized and a good listener. He is good with names, good with people, good at making people feel good about themselves.

"He makes the teachers feel appreciated and wanted," says veteran teacher Mel Wroten, who has had six principals at Randallstown. "We're so much more optimistic about our chances of success."

Believing in success was one of the criteria he used to hand-pick Randallstown's staff. "They had to believe that all students can learn," he says.

And Mr. Williams has told Randallstown students that those not interested in success might want to go elsewhere. During the opening day assembly, he asked any student who didn't want to be successful to raise his or her hand. "If your hand is up, what I have to share is not for you," he said.

Not a single hand went up.

Mr. Williams says his people skills developed early. "I was reading my old high school yearbook -- Lansdowne, Class of '71 -- and people were acknowledging that I had the ability to interact with almost anybody," he says, noting that he was one of only a few black students in his class.

"And, I genuinely like the kids," he adds. He is eager to know their names and to talk about what's on their minds. He is in front school when the buses arrive and in the cafeteria at lunch. He drops in and out of classrooms every day.

His friendliness has a firm edge, though. "Our young people need discipline and that's not something they have had. A tighter rein it's my style, and I know it works."

At the Rosedale center for disruptive high school students, Mr. ,, Williams cut the time between classes to reduce disturbances. He also had teachers lock classrooms once the bell rang, so tardy students had to come to the office before being admitted.

At Randallstown, he has established the dean of students positions to handle those dismissed from class for disruptive behavior. To keep students in classrooms, he is discouraging field trips. He has set standards of acceptable dress. And he has installed an evening program for students "who, in spite of our best efforts, are not making it in the regular program."

When Mr. Williams took the Randallstown assignment -- a "big challenge" -- he was promised the luxury of choosing his staff. Teachers and administrators assigned to Randallstown last year had to reapply for their jobs, if they wanted them. And they had to fit in with Mr. Williams' view of the school's needs.

About half of last year's staff remains. More than 30 staffers left, not necessarily by their own choice. Mr. Williams replaced three of four assistant principals.

That Mr. Williams could hand-pick a staff with little public or teacher outcry speaks volumes for his management skills. Although several former staffers are appealing their transfers, the resistance was slight compared with that at Kenwood High School, where a similar move brought protests and even a student walkout.

Mr. Williams also was able to attract staff from schools, such as Sudbrook and Carver, that are considered more prestigious than Randallstown. "Oh, I went wooing," he concedes.

"They were very eager to be a part of the Randallstown renaissance. We have a middle-class area where the majority of parents are college-educated and certainly employed. They have learned how to strive and get ahead. There's no reason why the children of these parents are not performing as well as they could and should.

"And many of them are. All students can learn. But if they are not interested, maybe this is not the best place for them."

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