New principal reaches out to make school succeed

September 02, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

When she watches them stream through the school's front doors -- children full of joy and wonderment -- Florence Johnson thinks of herself as the guardian of an imperiled generation.

Ms. Johnson, who served her first day as a principal yesterday at George Washington Elementary in Southwest Baltimore, describes her role this way:

"In this job, I really think I'm like the 'Catcher in the Rye.' I'm the one here by the cliff catching the kids before they get to the edge, before they fall, because once they fall, they're lost."

None of which is to say the new principal despairs or figures she'll lose any of the 460 bright faces that lit up the freshly painted pink-and-blue hallways and classrooms yesterday. A new school year, after all, is all about new beginnings, lofty expectations, fresh hope.

Mrs. Johnson, a tall, slender 42-year-old, has done her best to spread hope to students, parents and teachers since taking the $54,000-a-year job in early July.

She's been paying regular visits to the people living in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood surrounding George Washington, about six blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

It's a neighborhood where the average household income is $17,240, where almost half the children live in poverty, where high school dropouts outnumber graduates.

On a gray, sultry August day when the clouds hang low and heavy, Mrs. Johnson sets out with the PTA president, Debbie Fitch, to meet the parents and the children.

The two women clutch helium-filled balloons -- blue, red, yellow and green ones -- and red pencils with "GEORGE WASHINGTON ELEMENTARY" imprinted in white.

They smile nonstop. They say hello to women and children and a few young men gathered on stoops up and down Cleveland Avenue. They knock on door after door and ask questions:

Do you have any children at George Washington? Have you ever visited the school? Ever go to a PTA meeting?

Would you please consider buying a school uniform -- George Washington wants everybody to wear one to improve self-esteem -- if you can get one at a thrift store for 75 cents?

The unsolicited visits startle most residents of the Formstone- or brick-faced rowhouses.

"I tell you this is the first time we ever had a principal or anybody from the school visit the neighborhood like this," said Bonnie Thompson, whose daughters Sandra and Lisa attend George Washington.

"If you don't go to school," she reminds her daughters, "thprincipal's gonna come and find out why."

It proves one of the more enthusiastic responses. Other more common ones quickly become predictable:

"PTA? I never been to the PTA."

Two middle-aged women watch her curiously, this new principal making house calls up and down Cleveland Street. One of the women holds mace in her hand, the other a portable police scanner. Behind them sits a steel crowbar. For protection, they explain, in a neighborhood beset by drugs, thefts and poverty.

Mrs. Johnson promises her visits will continue as long as she's at the school. She's been in city schools 14 years, five of them as a teacher, nine in administration, the last two as assistant principal at Robert C. Coleman Elementary, named one of America's best schools by Redbook magazine last spring.

She knows the importance of involving everyone -- teachers, parents, students, aides, volunteers, maintenance workers -- to make a school succeed.

Parental involvement, naturally, ranks among the most important components -- and one of the toughest to bring about.

But if her visits fail to attract parents, Mrs. Johnson reasons, maybe chickens will.

The new principal knows George Washington is not a school renowned for parents' involvement and high attendance at PTA meetings.

Which brings us to the chickens, 50 of them -- to be awarded to the first 50 parents who show up at a PTA meeting.

"We're going to give them chickens and do whatever else we possibly can to draw them in here," says Mrs. Johnson, the mother of two teen-age daughters who attend Woodlawn High near her home in western Baltimore County.

Save the parents, Mrs. Johnson says, so they may help save the children.

"If we don't turn the tide now, if we don't save the children now, we know that they're dying out there," she says. "They're dying on the streets, and if we can't turn the tide, there are going to be more and more children dying on the streets."

When the first day arrives at last, the new principal smiles, as nervous and giddy as her young charges.

She has little time to savor the moment, though; from 8 a.m. until lunch time, she never sits down.

A mother wants to know why her child wasn't placed in special education instead of being held back a year. Another says she's trying to collect $110 for a doctor bill because her son got hit in the head with an umbrella last November.

Stragglers walk in two hours after the other kids have lined up in neat rows outside and walked, single-file into the school.

She takes to the microphone early with a supercharged: "We have been waiting all summer for this exciting day. . . . It's clean, it smells good, and it's attractive."

It is indeed. The place is spotless throughout, a huge George Washington Elementary banner hangs by the door, and inspirational messages cover the walls.

Mrs. Johnson can't wait to get around and meet everyone.

"People think principals want to lock themselves up in an ivory tower, but I'm not going to stay in the tower," she says. "The students will know that I know where to find them, that I know where they live. That oughta make them fly right."

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