Turmoil in schools poses challenge for new leader

March 06, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writers

At first glance, the choice of gifts for the new boss may seem odd: a large plastic carving knife and a blue T-shirt with the monogram "She Who Must Be Obeyed" to name two.

In a way, though, they are symbolic of what Carol S. Parham will need to do to leave her mark on the Anne Arundel County public school system -- a system that has been in turmoil since April when a teacher was arrested for having sex with a student.

Dr. Parham, who was named superintendent Feb. 23, will need to carve her own niche as a leader and exert authority in dealing with the eight-member Board of Education, which has stymied the last three superintendents.

"I believe the board has said they will support me. I'm confident there is a commitment, but I'm certainly going to test that commitment," Dr. Parham said in a recent interview. "My intent is that we'll move this school system forward, together."

If anyone can do that successfully, say her supporters, it's Carol Sheffey Parham.

"I think you'll see the reassertion of the superintendent," said Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman. "Because of the recent controversy and scandals, the current board members have been asserting themselves. I see Dr. Parham bringing a more equitable balance of power."

Charles I. Ecker, Howard County executive and her mentor, said: "She will be able to rein in a system that has been out of control and push for the best in students and teachers."

"I think the world of her," he said. "She encourages people to come in and tell her what they think. Her philosophy is to involve the people who actually do the work."

Dr. Parham started her career as a social studies teacher in the Baltimore City schools. She later worked in the system's personnel office for 10 years before moving to Howard County where Mr. Ecker was deputy superintendent, then came to Anne Arundel County in 1989 as director of human resources.

Reputation for excellence

At this time last year, Dr. Parham, 44, wasn't even thinking about running the school system. She was contemplating an interim career step, such as assistant superintendent or even deputy superintendent.

And she was spending time with her husband and her son and daughter at their home in Ellicott City. In her spare time, she read books and volunteered at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder.

At work, she earned a reputation as an administrator who allowed her staff freedom to operate, but expected excellence. She toiled in relative anonymity until July 31.

That was the day former Superintendent C. Berry Carter II was put on leave pending an investigation into how he had handled suspected child abuse cases during his years in the No. 2 slot.

Looking for someone to take over temporarily and restore public confidence after the arrests of three teachers accused of having sex with students, the eight-member school board turned to Dr. Parham.

After Mr. Carter quit in October, Dr. Parham consulted her family, then made it known that she would like to be considered for the job.

In February she was named interim superintendent to serve until a new superintendent would take over July 1.

Nearly two weeks ago, the board announced she would have that job, earning $100,000 the first year.

For Dr. Parham, though, the last two moves haven't changed the way she operates.

"At the beginning, it would have been crippling to operate as if I didn't have the job permanently," she said. "Nothing has changed now except that I received flowers and balloons."

Since the summer, she has made a point to visit two schools a week. She also has met with the staff at school system headquarters to clear the air.

She said she recognizes that the public has been frustrated by the lack of communication from the central office and the board members on issues ranging from starting a four-period day at Chesapeake High School to the selection process for the superintendent.

"The first question I will ask after anyone gives me a presentation will be 'What's the communication process? Have we contacted the CAC [Citizen's Area Council] or the PTA?' " said Dr. Parham.

Restructuring the hierarchy

The next task, she said, is to restructure the school system's hierarchy.

"This school system was set up using management principles for the '70s," she said. "The problem is that the areas of responsibility grew, and one individual has difficulty supervising all of that. We need to tighten up the management system and establish some clear lines of authority."

But some are questioning how she plans to use that authority.

"I have some serious reservations," said Richard Kovelant, executive director of the Association of Educational Leaders, the principals' union. "We've got a discrimination suit going, and I have concerns over her temperment with that.

"The timing on the moving of Carducci was misplaced and wrong, and shows a naivete at this stage in her career."

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