Principal wins $25,000 surprise; Honoree: Wilde Lake's Roger Plunkett had a reputation for staying on top of things -- until a national award caught him off-guard.


It wasn't just Roger Plunkett's unexpected $25,000 prize that had his wife and his staff members giddy.

It was also the satisfaction that, just this once, they had finally gotten something past the man who is always on top of things.

Plunkett, in his third year as principal of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, cried yesterday when state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick presented him with the coveted Milken National Educator Award in front of a cheering student body.

"Did you all know about this?" he demanded, wiping tears from his cheeks. "I'm gonna get you."

The California-based Milken Award is given each year to four outstanding educators in each of 41 participating states. In addition to public recognition and a trip to Hollywood, winners also are given a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

Plunkett, 43, has been credited with turning the school around, restoring discipline and high academic standards in a relatively short period of time.

At Atholton High School, where Plunkett was principal three years ago, students and staff also saw a difference.

"He's always stepping up to [the] plate saying, 'We can do that,' " said Grasmick. "And I think the results of the students at the schools where he's been speak to his outstanding leadership."

This year's first Maryland award winner, Garrett County middle school computer teacher Charles Trautwein, was notified Monday. The other two state winners will be told today.

The awards are always a secret to the winners, who are nominated by peers, employers and other educators. The awards are sponsored by the family of one-time junk bond king and convicted felon Michael Milken, who said he wanted to use some of his millions to provide more incentives for excellent educators. Since the program began in 1987, there have been 1,502 winners, 32 in Maryland.

After the ceremony, Plunkett said he was sure none of the 1,502 winners could have been more shocked than he was.

"How was this kept from me? That's what I want to know," he said. "Normally I like to have everything organized. I was walking around fussing because I didn't know what was going on. I was totally surprised and confused."

"The whole thing was nerve-racking," said Assistant Principal Karen Russo. "I think he was really perturbed with us."

The deception

Plunkett was told students were gathered in the school's theater for a special presentation from the national cable television show Court TV. So the rousing performances by the marching band, cheerleaders and school dance troupe didn't seem out of place. Nor did the television cameras and grinning media types.

But when he spied Grasmick, Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, Del. Frank S. Turner and other dignitaries, Plunkett was taken aback.

"What are you doing here?" he asked Turner before the presentation, furrowing his brow as he slowly shook the delegate's hand.

"This is the thing for Court TV, isn't it?" Turner replied slyly.

Plunkett's bewilderment quickly turned to elation when Grasmick called his name as the winner. In between cheers and hugs and tears, Plunkett could barely stammer out his list of thank-yous. He quietly thanked all the dignitaries individually, then his staff, then his wife. Finally, he thanked the students.

"You're the reason this award is here," he said, his eyes nearly as red as his tie. "We came in here and we said we wanted to raise our academic expectations; thank you for being you and rising to the occasion."

Students were just as thrilled about the award as the staff. Since Plunkett's arrival at Wilde Lake, many said, the school is markedly cleaner, safer and more focused on learning.

'He gets the job done'

"He definitely gets the job done," said senior Bobby Ratcliffe, 17. "I've been here four years and Wilde Lake isn't anything now like it was then. We used to have fights everyday. It has completely changed."

Plunkett is present in the hallways, students said. He cares about all the students -- good, bad or average, they said, and he doles out discipline and rewards equally and fairly.

"It really makes a difference knowing that he knows what's going on," said junior Kathleen Davis, 16.

Except yesterday, of course.

Plunkett's wife Debora knew last week about the award.

She silently started planning how they'd save the money for their two children's college education. But she didn't whisper a word to her busy husband, as he slipped in and out from parent conferences, staff meetings, football games, dances and church. It was difficult, but she even held her tongue yesterday morning when Plunkett laid out slacks and a blazer for work instead of a suit appropriate for television.

"It was important that he be surprised," she later said. "Because he's always in the know. This is the one time we got him."

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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