Keeping close ties to school family; Md. principal of year runs Westminster High with tireless spirit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sherri-Le W. Bream sweeps through a crowd of 1,200 rowdy teen-agers in Westminster High School's auditorium, zeroing in on those students sporting ball caps, reminding them to respectfully remove them.

"It's just poor etiquette," Bream says, seemingly incredulous that the reason is not obvious. "I wouldn't have them wear them at all in the building except that it's been done for so long. I tell them that this is my classroom and they'll take their hats off in my classroom."

Students and colleagues say that's classic Bream, the dedicated and tireless Westminster High graduate-turned-principal who recently was named Maryland's Principal of the Year.

This month, Carroll Superintendent William H. Hyde named Bream the principal of the new high school scheduled to open in Westminster in 2002.

In the meantime, she remains at the helm of one of the state's largest high schools, where she tries to make a building that's three times the size of a Wal-Mart less impersonal for 2,350 students.

"I think I've tried to be at as many activities as possible so that no matter how big this place is, people feel like the principal is involved," Bream said.

That goal has taken the 49-year-old from every state athletic playoff in which Westmin- ster teams were involved to the Atlantic Coast Conference marching band championships in Scranton, Pa.

She attends every faculty picnic, often joining in a game of horseshoes.

Her wardrobe includes plenty of "Westminster blue" and white -- the school colors.

She has attended hundreds of school plays, concerts, honor society inductions, pep rallies and athletic events.

"Wherever the kids go, I go," is her simple explanation.

Students notice.

"She's always supporting us, the sports teams and the band and stuff," said Shannon Mills, 17, a senior who plays field hockey and lacrosse with Bream's daughter, Lindsay. "She's not the kind of principal like, 'Oh, there's the principal,' like you see on TV shows."

The tough calls

But that doesn't mean Bream shies away from the authoritative role required of a principal. In 1998, when a 15-year-old student died from a drug overdose and three students were charged in connection with his death, Bream invited an undercover police officer into her classrooms to evaluate the seriousness of her school's drug problem.

The two-month undercover operation resulted in seven arrests and the creation of an after-school program that offers tutoring, weight lifting, aerobics, other activities and snacks between the end of the school day and the evening, when most parents get home from work.

"We like the kids; we like the teachers," Bream said of herself and her husband, Bob, a retired physical education, health and driver's education teacher who coached football, basketball and baseball in Littlestown, Pa. "To me, that's what school is. That's where it all happens -- in classrooms and in the school building."

A long day

So from 6: 40 a.m. until her last meetings and extracurricular activities are over at 6 or 7 or 9 p.m., that's where she can be found.

In an office dominated by owl artwork and figurines in honor of the high school mascot, Bream begins her day with a steaming mug of coffee and a 2-inch-thick stack of papers. Considering the amount of paperwork that crosses her desk in a single day, Bream's desk is remarkably neat.

Front and center is a daily schedule, a computer printout that she lays on her desk each night before leaving on the off-chance that an electronic glitch would keep her from logging on and would throw off a packed and precisely planned agenda.

But the mornings, at least, bring what Bream calls her "unstructured time."

She checks in with an assistant principal who has returned with 230 students -- and nine trophies -- from a four-day band competition in Williamsburg, Va. From a hand-held radio, she receives updates from a school administrator on the scene of a small fight that erupted outside the media center. And she takes the first of many peeks at her e-mail, where she responds to between 30 and 40 messages a day from teachers and others within the public school system.

Bream also finds time to slip notes into teachers' mailboxes, dispatch a student to the library to retrieve the American flag that usually hangs in the main office and sign bus passes for students seeking permission to ride home on a bus other than the one to which they're assigned.

All this before morning announcements begin promptly at 7: 46 a.m.

Built in 1971, the mammoth high school that Bream runs was merely an architectural model displayed in the lobby when Bream walked the halls of Westminster High, in the building that now serves as East Middle School.

Growing up with her younger brother on a Westminster farm, Bream was active in local 4-H activities, edited the high school yearbook, played goalie on the field hockey team, served on the student government council and led the prom decoration committee. Her father farmed 100 acres during the day and worked from midnight to 8 a.m. at Black & Decker as a tool-and-dye setter. Her mother also worked for Black & Decker, first on the assembly line and then as a supervisor.

Retired choral director Herb Sell remembers Bream as the beauty he stuck in the front row when jazz legend Duke Ellington came to town in 1969 to direct the high school chorus in a performance of "Solitude."

"She was real reluctant because she said she didn't sing well enough to sing for him," Sell recalled. "Of course, she was a very pretty girl and I said, 'I want you in the front row, if for nothing else, just to look at.' I have a picture of him turning around and bowing with her right there in the front row."

Bream graduated in 1969 with plans to become a marine biologist and study with Jacques Cousteau.

"That's why I took four years of French," she says with a laugh. "Not in a million years did I think I would be principal of my alma mater."

She earned a bachelor's degree from St. Mary's College in science with a minor in education and a master's degree in biology from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., where she taught general biology and botany for a year and a half.

The University of Indiana offered her a teaching job, but when university administrators encouraged her to start working on her doctorate right away, Bream declined.

"I thought, 'Oh, I'm tired of being poor,' " she said, "not that I expected to be rich teaching at the university, but I wanted to be able to pay my bills."

So she returned to Maryland and taught at North Dorchester High School on the Eastern Shore for three years "to see what I wanted to do."

She was hooked.

She taught biology at South Carroll High for two years and at Liberty High for five. She then served as an assistant principal at Westminster High for five years before being appointed principal -- Carroll's first female high school principal -- in 1990.

Despite the long hours, Bream says she tries to keep her job within the walls of her school building rather than bring work home with her.

"When I leave here, I try to leave 'here' here," she said, taking in the neatly stacked papers around her office. "I put in a lot of hours, but when I go home, I try not to worry about school. If I let it intertwine, I could really let it overwhelm me."

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