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'Principal on Wheels' gains a lot of traction

The Baltimore Sun

On a recent morning, the red pushcart sits outside Room 216 at Randallstown High School. Its owner - the school's principal - has stepped into the classroom to see what is wrong.

Back in the hallway, Principal Cheryl Pasteur remarks that it seems some students were giving the substitute teacher a hard time. With the students removed from the classroom, and order restored, Pasteur pushes on.

Two doors down, the beat of salsa music emanating from a Spanish class draws her into Room 214, where she and a student pair up and ease into a crowd of dancers.

"When you see children, you find Ms. Pasteur," says Shirley Holly, the principal's administrative secretary, who frequently scans the hallways in search of the cart's owner to get papers signed or deliver a message.

"Her being in the hallways helps to encourage the kids," Holly said. "There are less children in the halls, and they're more focused."

Randallstown High, once recognized as one of Baltimore County's highest-performing, has struggled in recent years on statewide tests. And the school's reputation was marred by a May 2004 shooting in the parking lot that left one student paralyzed and three others injured.

But teachers, students and parents say they've seen a change in attitude since Pasteur became principal this school year. They credit Pasteur's accessible style, high standards and no-tolerance policy for tardiness and unexcused absences.

"If we don't make a change, we're saying we buy into every stereotype - that our students here aren't good, that our teachers here aren't good," said Pasteur, 58.

Pasteur, a Baltimore native who has worked in the county school system as a teacher and administrator for 20 years, began teaching English in 1971 at Lake Clifton High in Baltimore. During the past five years, she has worked at Randallstown High as a teacher, chairwoman of the English department and assistant principal. Last year, she was heading the school's mass communications and performing arts program and planning to retire when she was asked to replace the outgoing principal.

A longtime resident of Randallstown - she lives there with her second husband, a childhood friend - she said she saw the opportunity as a way to give back to her community. She decided retirement would have to wait.

During a recent taping of the student-produced "Principal's Corner," Pasteur was asked what fueled her passion for teaching. Her answer revealed a little-known fact - she used to be an FBI agent.

She had been a teacher for more than a decade when she joined the FBI in the mid-1980s, with a specialty in Mideast terrorism.

Her tasks at the FBI, where she worked nearly five years, included teaching other agents. It was a daily reminder that teaching is her first love, she said.

"When I left the bureau to go back to teaching, people asked me how I could leave a life-and-death job," she recalled. "But when you walk into a school building, this is life and death. This is a life-and-death job because we can either kill the spirits of children ... or we can lift them up."

At the school, she is known by several nicknames, including "The Principal on Wheels," "The Red Baron" and "RP" (as in, "The Roving Principal"), because she spends the entire school day in the hallways and classrooms, all the while pushing the cart that doubles as her office.

On her cart, Pasteur carries key trappings of her office, including a travel mug of green tea, her BlackBerry, a walkie-talkie, a can of candy, a box of tissues and her planner. She brings a stack of paperwork but says she rarely gets to it until the end of the day.

To give teachers greater say in what happens at the school, Pasteur created a faculty council and routinely solicits ideas from the staff. She added that if teachers said her presence in the halls were too distracting, she would stop.

"I always say to them that it really isn't about me, it's about the school," she said. "Everybody comes to the table with ideas. They're the ones who make it work."

Pasteur also has started community-oriented programs to bring more parents into the building, such as weekly line-dancing sessions and a gospel choir for parents, students, teachers and staff. And she has stepped up efforts to inform parents when their children are late to class or absent.

Because Pasteur had been an English teacher and assistant principal at Randallstown, students knew what to expect when she was named principal, said 17-year- old junior Jasmine Conway.

"We knew it was time to buckle down," Conway said. "Last year, you'd see a lot of kids in the hallway, not caring and out of control. But Miss P has put a lot of changes in place. She's expecting a lot of us and from us."

Pasteur makes no bones about being a stickler for rules. But she also is generous with hugs.

"She put in the rules, but she also cares," said Conway, who added that her grades have improved this year from mostly D's to B's and C's.

Teachers and staff members say the hallways reflect one of the most visible changes.

With strict enforcement of the tardiness policy, the hallways are generally clear of students. Anyone who is more than 10 minutes late to class is suspended for a day. Students found in the hallway between classes without a hall pass also are suspended. No questions asked; no excuses accepted.

Pasteur says it's not a new rule, just one that is being applied more consistently. So far this year, she said, she has had no repeat offenders.

"No hats" and "no hoodies" rules go for the girls as well as the boys. Oversized T-shirts are frowned upon, and students are expected to keep their baggy pants pulled up to their waists. Pasteur said the dress code reinforces that Randallstown High is a place to take learning seriously.

When the school's student television staff did a story on the stepped-up enforcement, they couldn't find anyone who disagreed, Pasteur said.

"There was only one negative comment, and that was, 'Is it going to last?' And that's a good question," Pasteur said. "We always have to ask as a staff, 'Are we able to sustain this?' If not, then we need to find another way."

Fewer students loitering in the hallways means a cleaner building, said Allen Hill, a custodian at the school for 21 years.

"When students aren't in the hallways, they are in the classrooms doing what they're supposed to be doing," he said. "When you're in the classroom, you're not trashing up the school."

English teacher Courtney Stewart said she likes having her boss in the halls. She and others frequently stop Pasteur for a brief meeting or a quick chat. Stewart said she is encouraged by students' improved attitudes.

Said Stewart: "She's really holding kids accountable for what they're doing and setting the standards high for them."

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