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For 10-year-old Elizabeth Thompson, the perfect word to describe her principal, Deborah Drown, is honeysuckle.

"Honeysuckle smells sweet, and whenever you see Mrs. Drown, if it isn't a serious matter, it's almost guaranteed that she will be smiling," the Running Brook Elementary School fifth-grader wrote.

"She definitely makes me smile. Honeysuckle is my favorite flower, and Mrs. Drown is my favorite principal," she wrote of the veteran educator and Howard County's 1997 Educator of the Year.

A similar description of Drown comes from many of the students, teachers and parents at the west Columbia elementary -- and it was the kind of praise that was heard Thursday night at the Howard County Chamber of Commerce's annual Community Awards and during the day Friday throughout her school.

"She's supportive, she's a leader, she's a wonderful person to work for," said fourth-grade teacher Debbie Taylor. "She wants us to actively involve families in their children's education, and she works hard to help us do that."

Drown was recognized for such efforts as Running Brook's emphasis on reaching out to parents and the community -- particularly the neighborhood's Spanish-speaking families.

"It's really an honor to be recognized by the community, because that's been one of the things Running Brook has focused on during my five years -- community involvement," said Drown, 41. "That's the key to successful instruction."

As a school in one of Columbia's older neighborhoods, Running Brook is one of Howard County's most diverse elementaries -- one of just two that is less than 50 percent white, according to school system enrollment statistics.

Running Brook also has the second-highest proportion of Hispanic families -- about 7.5 percent -- and more than a third of its 350 pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the federal standard used to gauge low-income families.

"Running Brook is a very special school with a lot of challenges," said Marion Miller, assistant principal. "But it also offers exciting possibilities if you take advantage of them. Debbie has done that with everything she has tried."

To be sure, Running Brook's scores on Maryland's annual school performance exams lag behind those of many other Howard elementaries. But a recent analysis by The Sun of Howard schools' scores on the state tests found that Running Brook posted the fourth largest gains in the county last year.

The biggest effort begun by Drown is the Families and Community Together with School (FACTS) program, an attempt to increase family involvement, improve the school readiness of younger children and increase student performance and attendance.

With the financial backing of the state Department of Education and several local companies and foundations, the program has begun a Spanish parent group, a summer program of academic assistance and recreational activities for children working below grade level, parent-skills classes and a preschool program for 4-year-olds.

"You can see the difference in the children and the parents," said kindergarten teacher Penny Nedzel. "Families appear more comfortable to come into the school, and the Magic Circle [preschool] program is helping prepare children who might not otherwise have had any preschool experience."

The effort to reach out to Spanish-speaking families can be seen throughout the school, including Spanish titles for some of the school's important rooms and a kindergarten carpet that includes English and Spanish numbers. Parent volunteers are regularly in Running Brook's classrooms.

"Everyone needs to feel included at a school, and we're trying to do everything we can to make them feel comfortable," Drown said.

A graduate of Glenelg High School, Drown returned to the Howard schools in 1977 to teach fifth grade at Columbia's Dasher Green Elementary School. She moved to Thunder Hill Elementary as an assistant principal in 1986 and continued in that role at Waterloo Elementary in 1989. She was named principal of Running Brook in 1991.

Today, she's described by Associate Superintendent Sandra Erickson as one of the Howard's "shining stars" for her "consistent quality leadership at her school and among the other principals in the system."

Her leadership among her colleagues can be seen in her positions as president of the Howard County Association of Elementary School Administrators and president-elect of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals. After the awards program late Thursday night, Drown drove to the state group's meeting in Ocean City.

But for many of Drown's students, teachers and parents, her role as an administrator is secondary to her fundamental job as a teacher.

"Her father told me that Debbie has always been a teacher, and I think that's true," said Patricia Tidgewell, the system's K-12 instructional coordinator who specializes in elementary schools. "She's an outstanding teacher and also an outstanding administrator."

Fourth-grader Katie Nehl sees the same thing. "I think it's wonderful she won because she's such a great teacher," the 10-year-old said. "She shows us how to behave, she teaches us about life and she cares about all of us."

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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