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A principal and her legacy


The purple walls in Barbara Hoffmann's Burleigh Manor Middle School office are still covered with framed posters, inspirational sayings and family photographs, but now there are some empty patches.

After 27 years in the Howard County school system -- seven as principal of Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City -- Hoffmann is retiring. "I'm giving away my office things," she said. "They've already taken some of my posters."

She has been selling some of her personal mementos (not school property) to teachers and collecting the money in a fund for the teachers to use, she said. "It's their own money to buy something for themselves," she said.

The gesture is in character for Hoffmann, who seems always to be thinking of how she can benefit others, even as she is planning her departure.

It is a quality that has impressed Jenny Abel, PTA president and mother of a Centennial High sophomore and a Burleigh Manor seventh-grader. "I have had five years of Barbara's seven years at Burleigh Manor so I feel very lucky," she said.

'Particularly special'

"One of the things that was really particularly special about Barbara as a principal is that she was always an advocate for every student," Abel said. "She also did an incredible job of supporting her staff, both professionally and personally. She just created a really nurturing environment for everybody."

When the school year ends, Hoffmann will move to a cottage in Orange County, Calif., where she will be close to her two sons and three grandsons, she said. "It's a little California house" a five-minute drive to the beach, she said. And, since it was formerly owned by an elementary school principal, it seems as if it was meant to be.

Once there, Hoffmann might find part-time work at one of the local colleges, helping young teachers-to-be, but mainly she wants to focus on her family, she said. "I'm not going to work right away," she said.

"I loved working here," she said. "I loved it down to my bones, but it was all-consuming."

The new principal will be Steven Gibson, formerly of Patapsco Middle School and most recently principal of Hamilton Middle School in Baltimore, Hoffman said.

Hoffmann, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Columbia in the early 1970s with her husband, Thomas.

The couple had been living in Germany while Thomas served in the military, and together they looked all over the country for a place to call home. They chose Columbia because of the idealism embodied in James W. Rouse's vision for the multiethnic community, and they never regretted it, Hoffmann said. "We moved here specifically for his ideals," she said.

The Hoffmanns raised their two sons, Chris and Paul, there. Thomas Hoffmann died unexpectedly 3 1/2 years ago, and that is one reason Barbara Hoffmann is joining her sons on the West Coast, she said.

Hoffmann began in the school system in 1978 as an instructional assistant at Faulkner Ridge Elementary School, then got her teaching degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and became a sixth-grade math teacher and gifted-and-talented resource teacher at Patapsco Middle.

She then spent three years at the central office, working on staff development, but she missed working with children and took a job as assistant principal at Patuxent Valley Middle School. Three years later, she accepted the post as principal of Burleigh Manor.

In her years at Burleigh Manor, she has seen tragedy -- several pupils have died during her tenure -- but also joy. On her watch, Burleigh Manor pupils have been given more say in their school. The student government has become cool, and the music program has grown.

"I love this community," she said recently, in an emotional, reflective mood on one of her last days on the job. "It's going to be very hard to leave it." Instead of sitting behind her desk, she chose a chair at a small table, where several "Congratulations" and "We'll miss you" cards were propped.

"I think the thing I'll miss the most is the kids," she said. "I just love this age."

She said philosophies about middle school pupils have changed over the years. Her philosophy, one shared by the National Middle School Association, is that understanding these young, often volatile children is the key to educating them.

"They must be hands-on," she said. "They need to see relevance in their schoolwork. They need to socialize."

Three years ago, with a Horizon Foundation grant, she brought a program to the school that focused on 40 developmental assets that are important to young people. The list of assets, developed by a national nonprofit organization called the Search Institute, included family support, a feeling of physical safety, a school with clear rules and boundaries, high expectations and parents who are involved in school.

'Such a simple request'

One asset is that young people are given useful roles in the community. "We asked kids what they wanted, and they said a voice," said Hoffmann. "Such a simple request."

So she provided it. Pupils have much more control over their service projects, Hoffmann said. And student government has become such a big deal that in the most recent election, 57 pupils out of 200 ran for 12 seats, she said.

Pupils are encouraged to come to Hoffmann's office and make formal presentations to support any requests for changes in the school.

"She was a great advocate for this," Abel said, "particularly because it was clear that this was one of the ways to give students a voice, and this was really important to her."

Said Hoffman: "Middle school kids have so much to offer and they can do so much. I like to do anything that's good for the kids."

"She's definitely been a big part of our community and somebody that we're going to miss terribly," said Abel. "But we're very happy for her that she's entering retirement and she's going to be with her family in California."

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