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PIONEER, OPTIMIST

The Baltimore Sun

Long before integration, No Child Left Behind legislation and the discussion of achievement gaps, Natalie Woodson learned the importance of educating African-Americans.

At age 8, Woodson, who is now the education chair for the Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended her first NAACP meeting with her grandmother. The agenda item? Woodson's cousin Donald Gaines Murray, who was in the midst of a civil rights battle led by his lawyer - Thurgood Marshall - over admission to the University of Maryland School of Law.

Bigotry, raising a family, losing a husband, retirement from a career as an educator, and now her greatest challenge - battling a terminal illness - have not slowed the 79-year-old advocate, who accepted her current position in 1989. Woodson takes the challenge of educating African-Americans very seriously.

Born Natalie Wise to a hotel maitre d' father and a mother who died shortly after giving birth, the future advocate said she was inspired by her extended family, who took an active role in her upbringing.

An aunt, Sadie Dorsey, was a teacher in Baltimore City who became the city's first African-American movie theater censor. Woodson lived with Dorsey shortly after her mother died. Woodson said her "dynamic" aunt inspired her to become a teacher.

"I sort of came up in a family that was about doing things, productive things," Woodson said. "It's in the genes. You do what you can to make the world a better place."

Woodson excelled in school: She skipped two grades, and jumped at the chance to leave high school early by being one of the first students in Baltimore City to receive a GED in 1945. Shortly after, she attended Morgan State College - now Morgan State University - where she had gone during summer enrichment programs throughout elementary and junior high schools.

"My primary focus was education," Woodson said. In fact, education became the mantra for most of her extended family. At one point during her employment as a principal in Baltimore City, five of her cousins were also principals; four more worked as teachers.

"We were all instilled with the importance of education," said Woodson, who paid her way through college working as a clerk and later as a control clerk at the Social Security Administration.

While in college, she met her eventual husband, Cornelius Woodson, at a social hosted by colleagues.

"We fell in love instantly," she gushed. "It was love at first sight. He was a wonderful person; he was very supportive."

The couple married in 1954. They eventually had two daughters, and alternated between attending school and working. The years of struggle paid off. Cornelius became an attorney; Woodson became a teacher in Baltimore City after receiving a bachelor's degree from Coppin State Teachers College in 1960. In 1968, she received a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Woodson quickly ascended through the Baltimore City education hierarchy. In 1963, she was chosen to be one of three African-American teachers to work in the newly integrated Fallstaff Elementary. She was promoted to assistant principal in 1970 and was once again called upon to break the color barrier at Leith Walk Elementary, a school where African-Americans accounted for 25 of the 1,450 students. In 1972, she accepted a position as an assistant principal at Hamilton Elementary, a school with a majority-white student population.

"Every experience I have had has been wonderful," Woodson said. "I learned so much from each one of those experiences. It was marvelous."

Amid her ascension through the education ranks in Baltimore City, Woodson, her husband and their two daughters, JoAnn, and Veronica, moved to Columbia.

"The promise of Columbia and its philosophy of being in a community where everyone would be welcomed, irrespective of their race, was quite exciting, " she explained. "We really bought into the [James] Rouse dream."

After moving to Columbia, Woodson continued to work in Baltimore City. In 1977 - the year her husband died of a sudden heart attack - she was promoted to be principal of Patapsco Elementary in Cherry Hill, where she had worked as an assistant principal since 1973.

She retired in 1988 but continued to volunteer at Patapsco Elementary until 2005. "I promised that community I would never leave them," Woodson recalled.

Woodson's retirement proved to be just as engaging as working fulltime.

In 1989, Woodson was recruited, by then-president Elhart Slurry, to become the education committee chair for the Howard County branch of the NAACP.

"It [retirement] didn't last at all," Woodson said with a laugh.

Many of the Howard County education initiatives launched during the early '90s were the result of startling 1989 data that revealed that the median grade point average for the county's African-American high school students was 1.8.

"No matter where in the county our black children were from - affluent homes or homes with fewer resources - they were not living up to their potential," Woodson said.

In 1990 she launched Education Advocates for African Americans, an advocacy organization in which members accompanied African-American parents in Howard County to teacher conferences and meetings about individual education plans.

She also worked with the Black Student Achievement Program, a Howard County school system initiative started by Gloria Faye Wise Washington Wallace, a system employee, who died last July 4 after a battle with breast cancer.

Jenkins Odoms Jr., the current president of the Howard County branch of the NAACP, lured Woodson back to chair the organization's education committee at the state and Howard County level in 1994.

Woodson meshed that job with her work for the Education Advocates for African Americans. As a result, NAACP members began to take a more active role in monitoring school performance.

By 1995, Woodson said, she observed the first African-American high school students in Howard County graduating with 4.0 cumulative GPAs. "The work had paid off," she said

Woodson's efforts have not gone unnoticed.

"She cares deeply, and that comes through," said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who has worked with Woodson through several student achievement initiatives. "She is able to be persuasive in her gentle but informed way. People have responded to her approach. I see her as an asset for the state."

Howard County Schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin describes Woodson as a woman with a big heart.

"She's a lovely woman, who has the interest of students as her primary focus," he said. "She's been a valuable resource to the school system and to me personally."

In 2000, Woodson began the laborious task of completing the first NAACP Education Report Card, a comprehensive look at attendance, graduation rate, drop-out rate, suspensions and assessment scores for African-American students. The three-month preparation process requires Woodson to collect hard copies of school system data - she doesn't trust the accuracy of computerized data - and analyze the information by hand. She then grades school systems using the data. Her work on both the Howard County level and the state level have attracted inquiries for assistance from NAACP chapters in Georgia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

"That is one of the values of monitoring the school systems," Woodson said. "Everyone wants to try and look good. They want to show improvement.

"I focus on young black people because we are the ones that seem downtrodden at this point," Woodson said. "We have had a very hard path to travel. In the end I know that we will" prevail.

Woodson uses an optimistic approach for all of her challenges - included her most recent: a cancer diagnosis.

Last August, Woodson was told that she had an inoperable tumor. In September, she was told that she had four months to live. She began chemotherapy in November and completed six stages of treatment in April. She will receive an update from her doctor in the coming weeks to learn if the chemotherapy was successful.

"I'm walking in divine health," Woodson said. "I don't acknowledge any kind of challenge. I have asked God to be healed. So far I have been very blessed."

Chemotherapy - which allowed her to visit her Columbia home only on weekends - didn't slow Woodson from completing the most recent NAACP school performance report card.

Now, Woodson hopes illness will not stop her from achieving a personal goal - winning her doctorate. The topic? Training teachers to identify ways to relate to children in order to better teach them.

"I've asked God for five more years, and that is one of my goals," Woodson said. "I'm going to go back and get that doctorate before I leave this Earth."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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