Robin Shell may have found the perfect job - one that combines her love for education with a passion for empowering people through conflict resolution.
As the Howard County school system's first ombudsman, Shell faces the task of fielding questions and resolving concerns or complaints from a community that expects much from the state's top-performing school system.
As a mother of five children who also has high educational expectations, Shell is excited and feels ready to take on the challenge.
"It's a great mix of my experience and love of education," said Shell, who has taught at Anne Arundel Community College and the University of Baltimore and George Washington University law schools. "Talk to my kids; education is not taken lightly in our home."
The Howard County Board of Education last week approved Shell's appointment as a liaison between the community and the nearly 48,000-student school system. Shell, 42, of Glenn Dale in Prince George's County, will work three days a week, starting Feb. 7, and earn $48,000 annually. She will report directly to the five-member school board.
The school board received 77 applications during a three-month search and narrowed the field to 11 finalists.
Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, said board members, who made the final decision, were impressed with Shell's background as an attorney and her experience as a mediator and ombudsman for several organizations.
Since October, Shell has been a volunteer ombudsman for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, helping to resolve disputes between National Guard and military Reserve members and their employers.
Shell is also a volunteer mediator for the District Court of Maryland and for the Community Mediation Board for the Prince George's Office of Community Relations.
"She was able to articulate her method of dealing with disputes and give some examples which were solved through her mediation efforts," Watson said. "She was a very well-qualified candidate for the job. She came across as very understanding of the need for impartiality and neutrality."
Sipping coffee at a Starbucks in Greenbelt with her 6-month-old son at her side, Shell described her interest in community-based conflict resolution, her approach to the new job and her goals for the rest of the school year.
"In private practice, you do negotiations, but it's not community-based negotiations that's empowering to people," said Shell, who had a private law practice for several years. "Mediation is driven by the people. It can be very transformative."
Through her volunteer work as an ombudsman and mediator, Shell has helped resolve domestic, employment and neighborhood disagreements. She views herself as a facilitator who allows conflicting parties to find a solution on their own - a philosophy she will bring to her job in Howard County, she said.
"When someone dictates [a solution] to you, many times people don't take ownership of it," she said.
The school board and Shell see the ombudsman as an advocate for fairness and not for a particular side or point of view.
A need for an ombudsman in Howard County schools had been discussed in the past, but the school board pushed for it following a tumultuous 2003-2004 school year that included two grade-changing controversies and the departure of former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.
Some parents and school board members said that having an ombudsman might have calmed the emotional debate during that period.
Though Shell did not see Howard County's tough times firsthand, she said she understands anger and looks for the hidden issue in such emotional situations.
'You see a lot of anger'
"In mediation, you see a lot of anger," Shell said. "When people are angry, you have to let people vent and let them speak."
She added: "What is the underlying value? Many times, the parties want the same thing."
The PTA Council of Howard County hopes Shell moves into her position gradually.
"We think there will be a learning curve, and we hope that the ombudsman spends some time learning about our system before taking on some challenging assignments," the council said in a statement.
For the first several weeks on the job, Shell plans to do exactly that by meeting with parent and community groups and establishing relationships.
"I'm excited because it's a great opportunity to really hear what the needs are and get their voice heard and get information to people," she said.
Residence: Glenn Dale, Prince George's County
Age: 42 Family: Husband and five children, ranging in age from 6 months to 15 years
Work experience: President and general counsel for Training for Life Inc.; deputy general counsel for Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp.; associate at Linowes and Blocher; associate at Laxalt, Washington, Perito and Dubuc.
Education: B.A. in economics and political science from Howard University; J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center; pursuing master's degree in counseling from Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham.