Principal Alison Lee might appear to have the school district equivalent of the Midas touch: Each of the last three elementary schools that she's led has won the state's coveted Blue Ribbon for excellence.
Even as she prepares to accept the award next month at Broadneck Elementary School in Arnold, Lee insisted she is just lucky.
"I can't say that there's any magic dust that I sprinkled around," she said.
Lee said all three schools had key elements in place that she nurtured: strong parent involvement, experienced faculty, and students who come to school ready to learn. Lee said she has tried to infuse humor into the school with jokes during morning announcements and schoolwide events such as "crazy sock" day.
"I know when I come to work, I have to love it," Lee said. "I have to laugh all day and smile."
Lee, 50, of Annapolis came to Broadneck two years ago. She had been principal at Folger McKinsey Elementary School for four years and at Jones Elementary School for another four. Those two Severna Park schools also won Blue Ribbons on the state and federal levels.
The Maryland State Department of Education State confers Blue Ribbon status on six schools a year. Schools are recognized for academics, teacher retention, parental involvement and staff support. Academically, they must be consistently ranked in the top 10 percent of state schools or the most improved on standardized exams. In both categories, state officials look at data gathered during the past three years. Schools that need to improve must show "dramatic gains" in math, reading or other areas, according to the Education Department's Web site.
At least 95 percent of Broadneck's third-, fourth- and fifth-graders scored at proficient or advanced levels on the Maryland School Assessment reading and math exams during the 2006-2007 school year.
This is the 12th time that Anne Arundel County schools have won a state Blue Ribbon, and the first in the Broadneck feeder system.
Blue Ribbon schools are allowed to apply for a more prestigious national Blue Ribbon award. In both cases, government dignitaries visit the schools and award the blue flags. Administrators at state blue ribbon schools will be feted with a state dinner in Annapolis and recognized on the floor of the General Assembly in March.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and County Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell will visit Broadneck on Feb. 8 for an awards assembly. Vendors also are presenting a free interactive whiteboard for a classroom and a pizza party. During a lunchtime thank-you this month, Broadneck students will have cupcakes with blue icing.
Darla Strouse, who heads the state's Blue Ribbon program, has gotten to know Lee as her schools have racked up the honor. While acknowledging that Lee presided over historically strong schools, Strouse credits Lee's people skills as one reason for her schools' continued success.
"It's a great deal about her leadership style," Strouse said. "She is extremely well thought of by parents at her schools."
Broadneck had a 96 percent teacher retention rate during the past three years on which it was judged. Staff members praised Lee's ability to create an enjoyable, respectful environment. Now teachers are reading Laughing Matters: Strategies for Building a Joyful Learning Community by Sue Stephenson and Paul Thibault, in which they are encouraged to record how many times they laughed that day. They also share funny things their students have said in class or on homework assignments. For students, there are creative dress days, such as NFL day, or creative projects in class.
Lee also has changed the structure of weekly staff meetings. Announcements are handed out on a flier so that the time can be used for development or team planning.
"She doesn't 'meeting' us to death," said Kim Baicar, the school's guidance counselor.
Sherryl Barton, a second-grade teacher, said that Lee has built an atmosphere in which teachers are respected for their talents and differences. Lee also supports training needs.
"She's constantly trying to see what we need as a staff," Barton said.
At Broadneck, parent involvement always has been strong, said Lee, whose daughter attended the school while she was a principal in Severna Park.
During those years, Lee volunteered once a month in the school to read to students and serve as a teacher's assistant. Many parents do the same for their kids, she said.
Lee has tried to reach out to parents who do not come to school nights by holding parent information workshops outside of school, such as in an apartment building or church. In both cases, parent participation was high, Baicar said.
Nicole Roberts, president of the Parent Teacher Organization, said Broadneck has always been a high-achieving school. She, like many parents, moved into the surrounding neighborhood so that her sons could go there. But Roberts said that Lee has been a great addition to the school.
"She energizes the kids," Roberts said. "She makes you feel so welcome when you go there."