James H. Wilson -- Baltimore County schools' latest booster for minority achievement and multicultural education -- demands respect. If you give him a little, he'll return it to you, twofold.
It's a management philosophy that served Wilson well during his four-year tenure as principal at Woodlawn High School, where he improved the academic achievements of a large student body that is 90 percent black, and where he improved the school's image in the community's eyes.
"If you build a respectful relationship with every child in a school building, and if you are positive and set goals for those children, then they will perform," said Wilson, who took over in September as assistant to the superintendent for minority achievement and multicultural education. "If they respect you, they won't want to disappoint you."
In his new role, the popular principal is betting he can take his Woodlawn model countywide -- shifting his attention from students to principals and teachers, some of whom tend to cling to old ways.
Wilson is unflaggingly optimistic about the task before him. "I'm naive enough to think that we can accomplish anything we set out to do," said Wilson, who lives with his wife in Centreville, Va. They have five children. "I don't see any restraints."
School board members are about to choose a new superintendent to head up the nation's 25th largest school system, in which 32,399 of the 106,723 students are black.
The candidate they choose either could add fuel to Wilson's effort or undercut him, observers said.
"We're in the middle of a search, which provides a good opportunity for us to look at those candidates who will understand this need and give it high priority," said State Senator Delores G. Kelley, a Randallstown Democrat. "A lot of people believe that all children can succeed, and for James Wilson to believe that is wonderful, but there has to be systemic change."
Recent reading test results support Kelley's concern. Although education officials have made significant headway -- cutting the achievement gap between black and white students in early reading skills by half since 1997 -- black students still lag behind.
Last year, 78 percent of first-grade black boys were reading at or above grade level, compared with 89 percent of white boys.
Wilson, 54, is optimistic he can help narrow that gap. He has three decades of education experience behind him, most of it in Virginia, plus a doctorate in education curriculum and administration from George Washington University.
In the two months since taking the job, Wilson has launched a number of initiatives, including application for a state grant to fund college campus visits for black students and their families. He's working on a plan to provide after-school and weekend tutoring for geographic clusters of middle and high schools, too.
"He really loves kids," said Woodlawn assistant principal Sarah Zucker, who praised Wilson for securing educational opportunities at community college and technical schools for Woodlawn dropouts, and for adding a staff position so students could take SAT prep classes after school.
As a principal, Wilson often made opportunities to praise students on the PA system and in the halls, but he did not stint when discipline was called for. When a student used foul language, Wilson made the teen-ager write a report explaining why such language is inappropriate. After several revisions, he made sure the teen-ager showed the report to at least 10 different friends.
Wilson is hopeful he can produce the same positive results he had at Woodlawn at every school in the county.
Besides brainstorming with principals on ways to help teachers improve classroom technique regarding minority achievement, Wilson will take a closer look at test data from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the exams given to the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders each year, to determine which schools need the most help.
Some school system administrators are eager to get started. They say they've been waiting for someone to promote multicultural and minority achievement programs at the highest level of school system bureaucracy -- the superintendent's staff.
"It's a very important and high-profile position," said William Lawrence, director of secondary education in the county's northwest area and a member of the Minority Achievement Committee, which is preparing a set of program recommendations for a Nov. 24 meeting of the superintendent's staff.
Minority achievement programs "need coordination and oversight to succeed, and we think James Wilson will do that," said Lawrence. "He's someone who principals and teachers can call if they need help, because he knows the ins and outs."
Wilson's success in pulling up minority achievement could prove crucial to the future of Baltimore County schools; critics say it could be undermined by poor student performance and under-prepared teachers.
"We've seen several years of test data by race, and there's not much happening to fill those [performance] gaps," said LaWanda G. Burwell, acting supervisor of assessment and chairman of the Minority Achievement Committee. "We've got to have the most workable strategies to address the problem of the achievement gap because it's been going on too long."
Wilson agrees, saying, "We've got to take every child that's placed in front of us and want the best for them. I think of every child as my own."