This principal is diving right into the future

October 23, 1990|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

It is dismissal time at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, and the children are restless as mustangs in a crowded corral.

In a rear hallway next to the parking lot exit, they struggle to stay in line, fidgeting with rain jackets and backpacks.

The teachers ride herd gently but firmly, keeping their classes together until each gets the signal to dismiss.

Then, one by one, the classes head out the door, children galloping across the rainy school yard under colorful umbrellas.

Presiding over all of this, in person, is Deborah Wortham, the school's dynamic new principal.

"I stand at the door, and I can account for every class," says Wortham, who started the new, more orderly dismissal policy when she took over in August.

Wortham's calm, authoritative presence is evident throughout the 560-student West Baltimore school that principal and staff insist on calling "Sensational" Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Her changes offer a glimpse of what could happen system-wide under a restructuring plan approved by the city school board last week.

The long-awaited restructuring plan is intended to decentralize control of the city's schools, giving local schools more authority over their educational programs.

Though schools could adopt a variety of approaches to restructuring, involving teachers, parents and community leaders, the school principal will play a key role in each.

So far, more than two dozen schools, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, have applied for 20 slots in the three-year pilot program, due to start next September.

But Wortham isn't waiting.

Already this year, she has made a number of changes that could fit within the definition of "restructuring." Among them:

* Eliminating "tracked" home-room classes in the third grade, which had been organized into three groups according to reading ability.

* Arranging to have teacher's assistants on duty at 8 a.m., rather than at 8:10 a.m., to help escort children from the buses -- the kind of scheduling change that has sometimes frustrated administrators.

* Forming a "family-assistance team" that links the school social worker, counselor, parent liaison and psychologist.

And, if the school is selected for the pilot program, Wortham and her staff would have even more flexibility in making changes -- along with a $15,000 in start-up funds.

Even if Wortham's school is not selected, by making a number of significant changes this year "the statement we made is 'well, we're restructuring already,' " she says.

"I think it's all about cooperative management," says Vera Holley, the school's master teacher. "We're all having a hand in the say-so of how this building is being run."

But others at the school caution that local control also puts an added responsibility on the staff.

"When they say 'restructure to meet your children's needs,' you're more accountable," says Mary Drake, the school's speech pathologist. "Restructuring is very easy, but improvement is difficult."


The principal can be a powerful engine for change, and Wortham is moving ahead full-throttle in her first outing as a chief administrator.

In college and in later life, she says, "the motivating force was my sister." That enduring inspiration came about this way, she recalls.

While she was in high school, "my sister had multiple sclerosis . . FTC

. I took care of her. I gave up dating and the whole bit, just to take care of my sister."

One weekend, Wortham was scheduled for a pre-enrollment visit to the University of Wisconsin and hesitated because her sister was sick.

But Wortham's sister encouraged her to make the visit, telling her, "I want you always to remember to be the best of all you can be."

Wortham's sister died that weekend, but her message has survived.

"That thought always stayed with me, 'Be the best you always can be,' " Wortham says. "When you are the very best that you can be, you have a very profound impact on those around you.

"I never ask anybody to do anything that I won't do," she adds.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1971 and has been with the Baltimore City school system since 1972 when she landed her first full-time assignment as a first-grade teacher.

She has served in a variety of teaching and administrative jobs since then, most recently as an assistant principal at Harford Heights Elementary School.

And, in August, she took over at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a large elementary school named after a turn-of-the-century composer of African descent.

She approaches her new assignment with the zeal of a missionary.

"When I came to this school, I saw a need to clean, and I started to clean up," she says.

She started with the school building itself. A typical example: having weeds cleared from around the building by work-release inmates.

"Who wants to come to a school you where you have to step over the weeds?" she asks. "You don't." In addition, "Our carpet has been cleaned, some classrooms have been painted. You must use your resources."


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