Pursuing a vision for a better school


Dorothy E. Hardin, principal at Pikesville High School, marched through the hallway and up the stairs to a science lab on the second floor. Her school had a chance to pick up $1,000 in grant money, if the science department chairwoman would simply fill out a form.

"This is all you have to do," Hardin told the teacher, who agreed to do it right away. "I appreciate it, because we want that money."

Last night, Hardin was named Principal of the Year by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals.

She received the honor partly because she encourages exciting schoolwork for her 1,200 students, and because she doesn't send them home after school for lack of sports and clubs. And also because Hardin hungers for every dollar she can get to institute the next new class, buy the latest software or fund activities, such as a mock trial team.

"The whole idea each year is to make the school better -- that's my goal," said Hardin, 58, who has led Pikesville High for six years. "What I want is parents who attended this school to walk in and say, 'Wow, this school is better.' "

Hardin said she hears that now, and that it's no small feat.

Pikesville High has always been a high-achieving school, where doctors, lawyers and businesspeople send their children to prepare them for Ivy League colleges.

Graduates include a writer for television, a professional tennis player and an undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Last year, the average SAT score was nearly 1100. The school offers 10 Advanced Placement classes, as well as 48 teams and clubs.

"If you're a kid and come to this school, you're going to find something that you enjoy," Hardin said. "I mean, would you believe there is a gospel choir?"

There's also an Earth Awareness Club and a badminton team. There is instruction in graphic design, and a student internship with the Baltimore Symphony. There are longtime teachers who say they are still growing professionally.

Take Richard Disharoon, chairman of the visual and performing arts department, who has taught at Pikesville High for all of its 39 years. When Hardin came, she told this computerphobe that his department needed a multimedia lab for mixing music, making videos and doing computerized design work.

"We've had some good administrators in this building; they were people who know how to run a school," said Disharoon, who now talks with ease about the scanners, high-powered computers, mixers and samplers in the lab.

"But in terms of having a vision and bringing that vision into reality, that's different -- because this school has changed."

That kind of dynamism, according to experts, is especially important these days, when schools are being held to higher standards to ensure that students are ready for an increasingly complicated world. And principals are seen as the key.

Once, the principal's job was to make sure classes changed smoothly and the buses arrived on time. Now, they must know the curriculum, observe its implementation, and help struggling teachers.

The daughter of a Sparrows Point shipyard manager, Hardin, whose husband, Wayne, is a copy editor at The Sun, wanted to be a teacher since she was 5 years old and played school with her friends. She taught English for 24 years in Baltimore County schools before serving as assistant principal at Eastern Technical High School for five years.

When Hardin arrived at Pikesville High, it was at risk of slumber, according to parents and teachers. Students were leaving for nearby private and religious schools.

Hardin wanted the latest technology, so she secured grants and other funding to buy computers and the state-of-the-art multimedia lab, which has digital video cameras, music samplers and graphic design software.

She wanted more rigorous instruction, so she increased the number of Advanced Placement classes. Next year, there will be 12, and 10th-graders will be able to enroll for the first time.

She wanted to boost students' interest in their schooling, so she expanded the number of after-school offerings, as well as the internship program so students could see how coursework relates to the real world.

To find internships and raise money, Hardin joined the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce. To increase community involvement, she glad-handed parents.

"The first PTA meeting of my son's freshman year, she already knew him," said Lois Rothberg, who later joined the school improvement team. But Rothberg said she most respects Hardin for encouraging her son and daughter's interest in politics.

"And that's why I will keep her updated on my kids after high school -- because I think she has some responsibility for making them who they are."

Joseph Grossman, a senior, said Hardin was a familiar, friendly principal who takes an interest in their lives. Grossman said she often shows up at his orchestra concerts, cross-country meets and Model Congress meetings.

After asking the science department chairwoman to fill out the grant application, Hardin ran into Grossman in the hallway. Hardin told him she had been talking with a family member who graduated from the Naval Academy, where he wants to attend college.

After the talk, she marched back down the hallway toward the work awaiting her.

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