Finalist for schools chief sees Baltimore's potential; Former administrator and teacher heads nonprofit group


On the first day of her first teaching job, as a midyear replacement for an unruly fourth-grade class in the hardscrabble town of Hamilton, Ohio, Bonnie Copeland was immediately confronted by one of her pupils.

"My name is Markey Brown, I'm the coolest guy in town; you won't mess around with me," the pupil told her.

Several months later, on the last day of school, the pupil came to her with another message.

"I never thought I'd say this, but I'm going to miss coming to school this summer," he said.

Twenty-eight years and several top administrative positions later, Copeland is one of the three finalists to become chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools. The 50-year-old president and executive director of the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence is scheduled to appear at a public forum tonight at 6 p.m. at the Polytechnic Institute-Western High School complex, 1400 W. Coldspring Lane.

Despite the passage of time and increasingly prestigious positions, Copeland has not forgotten the lessons she taught, and learned, from Brown and his classmates. She keeps a framed picture of several of those students on a bookshelf in her office at the Fund, which is dedicated to improving performance in Baltimore schools.

"What I accomplished most was helping the children to believe in themselves and to take responsibility for their own learning," she said last week.

The opportunity to encourage the same thing on a wide scale among the city's 103,000 public school students goes a long way toward answering the question: Why would she want to head a system that she served as a volunteer board member in 1997-1998?

"Why on earth? That's what all my friends say," Copeland said with a laugh.

Turning serious, she said, "I do have a deep and abiding commitment to public education in Baltimore City. I have this unswerving belief that all children -- whether they live in poverty or live in mansions -- can reach high standards."

Whoever is selected to succeed Robert Booker, whose contract expires at the end of the month, will have to deal with the aftermath of a no-bid contracting dispute that has cost the system's chief financial officer his job.

Copeland said she is "deeply saddened" by the disclosures that consultants received lucrative, no-bid deals without required approval.

"We were all basking in this wonderful glory of student achievement," she said, referring to recent advances by city school kids on standardized tests. "Within two weeks, we have this tremendous cloud."

Copeland said the resignation last week of CFO Roger Reese was a good first step but added that "the real critical piece" is the investigation of suspended business officer Wilbur C. Giles Jr.

If she is chosen the system's top administrator, Copeland said she would "operate with a transparent budget" and institute the "strictest internal controls possible" in an attempt to restore public confidence.

Those who have worked with Copeland describe her as the kind of person who can make a difference.

"She is very good at assembling a team and getting everybody on the same boat, rowing the same way," said William M. Gust, the board chairman of the Fund for Educational Excellence and managing general partner of Anthem Capital Management.

"She tends to be a consensus builder, but not necessarily through compromise," he said. Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group where Copeland was executive vice president from 1994 to 1999, praised her administrative skills and knowledge of education.

"She's the most organized person I ever met," said Hutchinson. "She's a great time manager. She knows where to place priorities."

Carl Stokes, a 1999 mayoral candidate who served with Copeland on the city school board, said he's "unabashedly a fan of Bonnie Copeland."

"What she understands is that it has to happen in the schoolhouse. Everything else has to support the teachers and principals," said Stokes.

Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, population 6,000, the oldest of two daughters of a hospital administrator father and homemaker mother, Copeland said she always wanted to be a teacher.

"I would teach schools to my virtual students in the basement," she said.

After teaching jobs in the Midwest, which she held while earning master's and doctoral degrees in education, she came to the Baltimore area in 1979 when her first husband received a medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

During the next 15 years, Copeland, who was divorced in 1982, had a series of high-level administrative positions with the Anne Arundel and Baltimore County school systems and the Maryland State Department of Education, including a brief stint as acting state superintendent in 1991.

She left the state education department in 1994 for the GBC, where she was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the 600-member business group.

In 1997, she became one of the first nine members of the new Board of School Commissioners, chosen jointly by the mayor and governor under a city-state partnership to try to revitalize public education in Baltimore.

Copeland left the school board, which has a city residency requirement, at the end of 1998 after her marriage to Howard County schools administrator Robert Lazarewicz.

Copeland agreed to live in Howard County until her stepson graduated high school, which he did last week. The couple has maintained an apartment in Federal Hill since the beginning of the year and she said they plan to begin looking for a house in the city, whether she gets the top school job or not.

Last June, Copeland took over operation of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a 16-year-old organization that includes among its programs Achievement First, a reform-based program in 28 city schools.

"I love being at the Fund," she said. "I see evidence of [pupils'] writing going from fairly cryptic in September to wonderfully detailed paragraphs in April."

Without prompting, she asked, "Why would I want to give that up?"

Just as quickly, she has an answer that is part personal and part professional.

"There's just so much we can do from the Fund's standpoint," she said. "We don't have controls over who the principals are, who the teachers are."

As for herself, she said: "There's still another direction for me to go in."

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