Basic Principals

M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

June 26, 1993|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

Evelyn Beasley always seemed to act as if she were up for re-election every semester. In a sense, she was.

With the close of school, Mrs. Beasley retired after 17 years as principal of Roland Park Elementary and Middle School and 38 years in the Baltimore school system. She received national recognition -- and some local jealousy -- for pulling off a ''turnaround'' at Roland Park.

Critics of Mrs. Beasley say that what she did was easy: Roland Park is in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city; well-to-do kids achieve much better (on average) than poor kids, so there's no great trick to running a ''good'' school in Roland Park.

While kids who live in the Roland Park neighborhood do tend to do well academically, there's a lot more to the story of Roland Park's public school. The neighborhood does not generate enough kids to fill the school, and many of the neighborhood kids attend private schools. Roland Park school attracted kids from across the city -- most of them black, many of them poor.

That's why Mrs. Beasley was, in effect, always up for re-election. Most of the students at her school could have been somewhere else: Some could have been in private schools, the rest in public schools in their own neighborhood.

My son Matt went to Roland Park, and as I dropped him off each morning, Mrs. Beasley would be at the front door, working the crowd like a politician. It seems, in memory, that almost every day, she'd tell me how proud they were of something Matt had done. I don't think Matt was really doing anything that amazing, but Mrs. Beasley knew how to make parents feel good about her school.

That, of course, was part of her secret. She was always able to attract and hold a core of interested parents. Some of those parents were among the city's elite, and when the school had a problem, they could and would get on the phone to members of the school board or city council or to the mayor. A year before her retirement, the school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, was considering moving Mrs. Beasley to another school, and a barrage of calls led Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to say he would be reviewing administrative transfers. Mrs. Beasley got to stay.

Certainly, having a critical mass of influential parents was helpful to Mrs. Beasley in improving her school. This is one of the things she had to work with in Roland Park, and she used it. In a different neighborhood, she would have used other methods, finding ways to take advantage of whatever assets were on hand. Had she run another school, it might not have been like Roland Park, but I'm confident that she would have made any school better.

It wasn't just luck that Mrs. Beasley had so many supportive parents. These were people who had options, and they wouldn't have remained Roland Park parents unless they were satisfied their kids were being taught well.

There's no great secret to what Roland Park was offering -- and delivering, to an extent that rich and poor parents across the city arranged car pools or put their kids on MTA buses to get there. The curriculum wasn't dramatically different. There wasn't a lot in the way of materials. (Roland Park ran on a per-pupil budget like that of any city school. PTA fund-raising allowed the school a few more goodies, but it had less in the way of books and equipment than a typical suburban school.)

What Roland Park had was good teachers, using a variety of methods and styles but getting results. Perhaps the most important thing Mrs. Beasley did was make sure the teachers were good -- attracting successful ones and scaring off bad ones.

Unfortunately, some of the same things that made Evelyn Beasley successful also made her enemies. When a principal has the clout to prevail, at least some of the time, over central administration, some administrators see her as a threat.

In addition to the consideration of Mrs. Beasley's transfer last year, there have been attempts to reverse, or at least ''review,'' several of the programs Roland Park has developed over the years, such as all-day kindergarten and an advanced academic program in the middle school. Bureaucracy abhors an anomaly.

But as school systems these days talk about ''school-based management'' -- leaving more decisions up to the staff and parents of a particular school -- administrators will have to learn to live with principals like Evelyn Beasley. In her school, kids learned. That's what matters.

M. William Salganik edits The Sun's Perspective section.

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