School of hard knocks?

March 26, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Mary Maushard contributed to this article.

Principal Clark R. Powell came to Randallstown High School )) two years ago because he liked working in challenging schools. But he found more challenges than he had bargained for.

The northwest Baltimore County school has been troubled by fights, racial tensions, arson and a mass defection of faculty since his arrival. One teacher who left Randallstown said "working in a 7-Eleven might be a better deal."

Many parents say they fear for their children's safety. This winter, county school officials took the unusual step of assigning a director to Randallstown to concentrate on academics while Mr. Powell and four assistant principals concentrate on maintaining discipline at the 1,250-student school.

Critics say Mr. Powell has alienated faculty and staff with an authoritarian style. After his first year, at least 27 of 80 teachers left the school, including the heads of the English, social studies, music and foreign language departments. This year, 19 teachers have asked for transfers.

Some parents support and respect Mr. Powell's work, and some students say Randallstown High is taking a bad rap when in fact it has some strong programs, including a thriving National Honor Society, successful theater productions, and a challenging program for gifted students.

Even so, these are not easy times for the school or the 45-year-old principal who came here from Benton Harbor (Mich.) High School in 1993. "I've walked into a hornet's nest of differing ideas and perceptions of what needs to happen at Randallstown," Mr. Powell said.

He said wants to give the school more focus and direction, but the problems don't seem to be abating. "This has been the most stressful year I've ever had in my career," he said.

Mr. Powell attributes many of the problems to demographic changes in the Randallstown area, which has become the center of the county's growing black population.

According to school system enrollment reports, Randallstown's nonwhite population has increased from 58 percent in 1991-1992 to 80 percent this school year.

"It's a school in transition," said Superintendent Stuart Berger, who otherwise would say nothing about Randallstown's problems or Mr. Powell.

This school year in particular has been marked by disturbing incidents, including at least five fires of suspicious origin in bathrooms, locker rooms and closets. Driving to school some mornings, Mr. Powell says he prays, "Lord, just let me get through this day without a fire."

Seventy-eight fights have occurred at the school this school year, and officials have handed out at least 239 suspensions, compared with 242 for the entire 1993-1994 school year. In January, the fights seemed to mushroom. Some had racial overtones.

"There are, like, fights, but what school doesn't have fights, you know?" said Heather Noda, a 15-year-old sophomore. "Most of them are not racial."

'The last straw'

But in February, a racially tinged fight in the school parking lot brought the issue to a boil. "For certain parents, that was the last straw," Mr. Powell said.

A half-dozen parents kept their children home for a week. Soon after, many white parents at a meeting of 200 parents told the administration that the school was unsafe for white students.

Some students say the problem is overstated. Senior Rachel Jablon said it's "the adults of the community who are blowing it out of proportion." She said there are fewer fights now than when she arrived as a freshman.

Nonetheless, the school implemented a "Zero Tolerance Discipline" policy, in which police are called whenever there is a fight. Several other county high schools credit similar policies with reducing violence.

Disruptions still occur. On March 17, about 200 students walked out of school after they learned that school officials, worried about racial tensions, wanted to cancel an April 5 assembly with filmmaker Spike Lee.

Mr. Powell used a megaphone to coax students from the school parking lot back into the auditorium. The ultimate decision: The assembly will go on as an optional, after-school event.

Meanwhile, Patsy Holmes, director of high schools for the northwest region, was sent to Randallstown in February. While school officials reject the widely held idea that she is "co-principal," she will stay at least through April to help with instruction while Mr. Powell concentrates on keeping order.

"There's no question that the discipline has eroded to require a full-court press," said Michael Riley, the northwest area superintendent who dispatched her.

Mrs. Holmes visits classrooms, observes instruction and offers teachers support. "What we're finding is that instruction is being delivered," she said, but teachers "are having a lot of discipline problems, and that's consuming too much of their time."

Mr. Powell praised Mrs. Holmes as a good administrator, but said, "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me that they need to send a director to do anything with me."

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