When Edward Cozzolino became principal of Middlesex Elementary in 1993, the school's test scores were among the worst in Baltimore County. When he left in 1997, Middlesex was a National Blue Ribbon School.
When Cozzolino arrived to take over nearby Shady Spring Elementary in Rosedale in 1999, the school was struggling academically and with behavior problems. Troublemakers often were lined up outside the office, and pupils routinely banged their fists against the partitions that serve as classroom walls.
Now, scores are on the rise and discipline problems are declining, a testament to a gifted leader who is working with teachers, parents and pupils to ensure that children learn, regardless of ZIP code.
"All of the research, everything we know about education, tells us that the principal is the most critical variable in student achievement and school success," said William Lawrence, the executive director for schools in northeastern Baltimore County. "There is no other way to frame the debate. When we talk about 'All students can learn regardless of social issues,' Ed believes that. ...
"Our challenge is to try to make it happen in more and more schools."
Cozzolino, 50, knows he has been successful in what can be considered "difficult" schools, those with a large minority population, and those at which most children are from low-income families. Still, he doesn't want to be the focus of attention. "Talk about my staff," he says. "What these folks do is just incredible."
First, though, there is Ed Cozzolino. Raised in New Haven, Conn., he moved to Baltimore in 1969 to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He figured he would teach for a few years and move on. But he fell in love with it.
"I taught kids to love to learn and to love to inquire and investigate and think creatively and critically," he says.
Cozzolino taught elementary school, and by 1993 was running one. After Middlesex, he spent a year running Fullerton Elementary in Overlea and a year as a mentor to first- and second-year principals. Then, given the choice of several schools, he picked Shady Spring.
"This was the kind of school I feel most at home in - a school that has enormous potential and for some obvious reasons ... was not living up to [it]," he said. "It was my interpretation that it just needed some focus, some consistency and some staff development."
He looked at the numbers and the answers were simple, he said. "Either we're not teaching it or we're teaching it in a way they're not learning it."
Changes for staff, pupils
He has increased staff development and planning time, and instituted a code of conduct that pupils repeat during morning announcements: "I am respectful. I am responsible. I am prepared. I am safe. I will succeed. Here at Shady Spring we accept nothing less than our personal best."
In many classrooms, teachers wear stopwatches around their necks, part of a philosophy to keep classes moving and to reward pupils with free time for moving speedily from task to task and listening to directions.
"They could take 10 minutes to get out a piece of paper," said Julie Anne Lynch, a fifth-grade teacher.
With a laugh, teachers call Cozzolino "the King of Think-Pair-Share," which is a trick to make sure that children pay attention in class. In the past, a teacher asked questions and called on pupils. That gave each child a 1-in-25 shot of being called on - really more of a 1-in-100 shot, because the teacher often called on children in front raising their hands. For many, it was an invitation to zone out.
Change is apparent. Take Lynch's class. On this day, they start math class by answering a few drill questions on the board (soon, they will learn about measurement by making salsa, but first things first). "Turn to your partner and tell him how to find the area," she says. There's a lot of mumbling of "length times width." Then, she calls on one person to share the answer with the class. Nearly the whole class is engaged.
Cozzolino is always searching for new teachers, keeping an eye open for good student teachers who soon will graduate or established teachers who are unhappy where they are. For every opening, he interviews 10 people. He lets some fourth- and fifth-graders participate in the process. Some schools have to take whoever applies.
Focus on reading, writing
He also has shifted the focus at Shady Spring to reading and writing. Other subjects are not ignored, but if you're focused on too many things, you're focused on nothing at all, he says.
Cozzolino and the teachers talk about why their African-American pupils don't perform as well as their white pupils - and try to devise different ways of teaching to help everyone improve.
"Since Mr. Cozzolino's been there, I think the school's been great ... " said Susan Landis, whose daughter Catherine is a fourth-grader. "They want you to get everything your child needs. It's not a struggle as in other schools."
"We expect to be a Blue Ribbon school eventually," said Bethany Swiston, a fifth-grade teacher.
Teachers never know when Cozzolino will wander into their classrooms. He watches them teach during their formal evaluations, but he wants to know that they perform just as well every other day.
He wanders into Andi Selmer's third-grade classroom, held in a trailer outside. Children race up to him as if he is a pop music star. One girl shows him her paper, with three math problems marked wrong. She tried to add 6 and 4 and got 9. He launches into a mini-lesson: "One of the strategies I learned as a kid was to learn the numbers that add up to 10," he says. They review each one.
"He's like a magnet," Selmer marvels, standing off to the side. "It's ridiculous. It's hilarious. Can you tell he's loved?"
"I'm always struck by the number of kids at his school who walk up and hug him," said Lawrence, who spends time in many schools. "In a way, that really is rare. We say that principals should like kids and kids should like principals, but it's not always that way."
In the third-grade classroom across the path is Robert A. Noble, a sixth-year teacher who was lured from Baltimore Highlands Elementary because of Cozzolino's passion. The pair are trying an experiment this year. Noble's room contains only boys - 12 children who spent a lot of time being thrown out of their classrooms and their school last year. Although it took a lot of work, Noble's kids are behaving beyond his expectations - and the good behavior means a lot more time for instruction.
"Instead of fighting, they're interrupting because they have the right answers," Noble said, shortly after a lesson on the basics of multiplication. "That's just like the coolest thing in the world."
Many familiar faces
Making his way through the fifth-grade corridor, Cozzolino spots a face he doesn't recognize, out of 575 or so children enrolled in the school.
"Who are you?" he asks. "Chris," is the answer. "How long have you been here?" the principal asks. "Friday," Chris answers. That's five days - Cozzolino can be forgiven.
Says fifth-grader Alicia Flores: "The principal is nice, and he is kinda like a student in some ways because he is playful."
"You have to take a high profile," Cozzolino explains.
He has outlawed derogatory terms and attitudes regarding children and their abilities to learn. His feeling about teachers who don't agree with his philosophy: "You need to know that you don't belong here."
There's still work to be done. Standardized test scores, for example, are not where Cozzolino expects them to be.
Sometimes he asks teachers who are frustrated with certain children, "Do you think they're screwing up on purpose?"
He reminds them they must succeed, regardless of what is going on at home: "You can be concerned that they come to school without breakfast. You can be concerned they go home to an empty house." But you still have to teach them.
"The excuse that these kids come from a certain ZIP code is just that. Progress at a Shady Spring or a Middlesex will be slower than a school with more [affluence], but progress can be achieved," he said.