Columbia principal takes on challenge; Assignment: A former teacher returns to Wilde Lake Middle School as it struggles with poor test scores, other issues.


Whether by fate or plan, Brenda Thomas has a habit of stepping into challenges.

After nine years of teaching social studies at Wilde Lake Middle School, Thomas left in 1995 to become eighth-grade team leader at Elkridge Landing Middle School the year it opened. Two years later, she went to a severely overcrowded Clarksville Middle School as assistant principal.

Then the call came asking her to take the helm of Wilde Lake Middle School this year, a racially and economically diverse school in the heart of Columbia that has struggled recently with test scores, a receding student population and bad word-of-mouth; a school where unhappy parents removed dozens of children this year to attend the new Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

"This is really where my heart is," said Thomas, 52, a petite, effusive woman who smiles easily and walks briskly through the school hallways. "It's like coming full circle. This is truly a gift to me."

That kind of enthusiasm might seem canned or merely tactful if it came from an outsider. But those who know Thomas -- who has lived in Columbia for half its 30-year existence -- say she is sincere about playing a leading role in improving the academic performance and boosting morale in the school community.

It won't be an easy task, officials acknowledge. The exodus of students to Lime Kiln has focused attention on the school's perceived shortcomings. Wilde Lake Middle School's 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores for eight-graders were among the lowest in Howard County, with less than 47 percent of pupils reaching satisfactory level or higher.

The picture improved in 1998, with almost 57 percent performing at least satisfactory, but that score is considered low by county standards. Some parents have also complained about issues of classroom control and instruction quality.

"I think that there has been a loss of credibility over the years with at least one segment of that school's population," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "It's really key to the revitalization of Columbia schools that Wilde Lake Middle School, just like Wilde Lake High School and the elementary schools that feed into them, that they really emerge as outstanding schools; that they develop a following regardless of what the ethnic and socioeconomic and language makeup of the school is."

Thomas has hit the ground running. She has been busily writing grants to make sure children continue having transportation to afternoon academic support programs. Extra support staff has been brought into the school, enabling pupils to get one-on-one attention and work in small groups. Thomas and her team leaders also are analyzing test score data to pinpoint pupils' strengths and weaknesses.

The school has started a parent and faculty newsletter, and the School Improvement Team has evening meeting times, so that more parents can be involved.

"Dr. Hickey has put tremendous faith in me, and so has [instructional coordinator] Alice Haskins, but no mandates," Thomas said. "It's much more about continuing the high expectations for myself, for my staff and the students. It's more about building on what's here."

Parents like Rick Wilson, president of Wilde Lake Middle School PTA, also have high hopes for Thomas and her staff. Wilson said Thomas' enthusiasm will motivate teachers and make parents feel good about sending their children to Wilde Lake.

Watching Thomas work the crowd at a welcome-back breakfast for the school's teachers was proof of her leadership qualities.

"It wasn't a sideshow. She was really just getting the troops whipped up to a frenzy," Wilson said. "She's absolutely wonderful. We've had a very good dialogue."

Thomas is reluctant to paint herself as any kind of savior for Wilde Lake Middle. She insists that any improvements the school makes will be done with the help of Assistant Principal Thomas Saunders and teachers.

Indeed, those who have worked with Thomas say that working with others to effect change is one of her strengths.

"From the day she walked into my building, she did an excellent job working with parents, teachers and staff," said David Oakes, principal of Hammond Middle School. "She's real quality."

Dressed in a brown suit and heels, Thomas strides through the halls of Wilde Lake just after the morning bell, poking her head in classrooms and offering a hearty "good morning" to some not-quite-awake-looking eighth-graders.

She has a decidedly hands-on style. Last Friday, Thomas and Saunders left school early to meet the bus dropping children off in the Hannibal Grove neighborhood.

"The kids were so excited," she said. "And then we walked them home and met their parents. You need to have a relationship [with parents], and it needs to go both ways."

Thomas grew up in pre-Mickey Mouse, segregated Orlando, Fla. and graduated from Florida State University in 1969 with degrees in philosophy and religion -- majors she "could do absolutely nothing with," she said jokingly.

By 1976, Thomas was a divorced single parent teaching in an inner-city high school in Hartford, Conn. It was an era of urban renewal, and she and her daughter, Ashley, were living in a house Thomas bought in a largely minority neighborhood.

"She was the only white child in the day care center," Thomas said of Ashley. "Kids don't notice that kind of thing. She thought everybody lived like that. We would have birthday parties, and it would look like the United Nations."

Thomas gradually became frustrated with inequities in the urban school system, finding herself teaching urban studies in 1980 from books written in the mid-1960s. That spurred her to join the Save Our Students coalition as teacher spokeswoman.

In Hartford, she met Kevin Thomas, then an education reporter for the Hartford Courant and later an editorial writer for The Sun. She and Thomas, who was black, married and moved in 1984 to Columbia, which has historically embraced interracial families.

Kevin Thomas died in 1996 at 39.

"It was just natural for us to live here," said Thomas, who now lives in Clary's Forest with their two children, Justin and Chelsea, who attend Wilde Lake High School.

Wilde Lake Middle School, with its "amazing mix" of children from different racial backgrounds, appealed to Thomas' sense of the value of diversity.

She spent nine years at Wilde Lake Middle before becoming one of those selected to open Elkridge Landing Middle School with Principal Kenneth Gill in 1995. The next year, she was appointed acting assistant principal of Hammond Middle School, then was named assistant principal of Clarksville Middle School the following school year.

As Thomas was preparing to take the helm of Wilde Lake Middle following Albertha Caldwell's retirement, the debate over open enrollment -- the policy allowing students to transfer at will provided they have transportation, and space is available -- was in full swing.

"In the best of all worlds, I would have liked for [parents of transferred children] to have given [Wilde Lake] a chance," she said. "But I also understand their position. I think they're doing what they think is best for their child.

"I'm a very positive, upbeat person. I would prefer to work with people who want to be here. I want to work with the community to address those problems."

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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