Textbook success story Assistant principal: Until his high school principal took an interest in him, Eric Carlton didn't plan to go to college. Now, he's one of Maryland's youngest school administrators.

January 27, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Were it not for the guidance of a black man who was his high school principal not so long ago, Eric A. Carlton might never have gone to college -- much less become a school administrator and a role model for students himself.

Mr. Carlton, 28, of Baltimore has been assistant principal of Woodlawn High School for more than a year. He is one of the youngest school administrators in Maryland and a success story in Baltimore County's efforts to recruit and retain minority educators.

"I didn't want to go to college," said Mr. Carlton, a 1985 graduate of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "My principal [Donald Matthews] took me to some colleges and shared with me what college life was about. I thought, 'Wow, out of all of these students, he took an interest in me.' "

Of his role today at Woodlawn High, Mr. Carlton said, "These young people need to see African-Americans as leaders. They need to see our faces, and they need to know, 'Hey, I can do this.' "

The shortage of black teachers and administrators in the county has become a central issue this year. A recent study by the school system highlighted continuing gaps in achievement between minority and nonminority students, and the difficulty in hiring and retaining African-American educators.

The report stirred debate and led to charges of racism in Baltimore County schools.

Steve Walts, assistant superintendent for human resources, said the system is "really committed to being an affirmative action employer."

"We are aggressively seeking minorities to fill positions," Mr. Walts said. "You go into a school that is predominantly black, and the whole front office is white, and that's a problem."

Minority students make up 29.5 percent of the county's enrollment this year, with black youngsters accounting for 21 percent. Only about 10.6 percent of the system's professional staff is black, though initiatives of the past few years have improved minority representation. This year, 14.6 percent of the new teachers and administrators are members of minority groups, Mr. Walts said.

Mr. Walts and his staff recently developed a list of strategies to attract more minority staff. Among the recommendations were advertising in publications aimed at African-Americans and increased recruiting at historically black colleges and universities.

Mr. Carlton's relationship with county schools began with a chance encounter with one of the system's personnel workers.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in African-American studies from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 1991, Mr. Carlton began attending area job fairs. It was at a UMBC job fair that he happened upon a booth set up by the Baltimore County school system.

"I asked the guy if he knew of any unconventional programs that could get me into teaching," Mr. Carlton said. "He said, 'I have just the program for you.' "

Mr. Carlton enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University's Alternative Certification Graduate Program in Special Education, a rigorous two-year course designed to bring teachers into that field -- with a focus on attracting minorities. Graduates receive teaching certification and a master's degree in special education.

The Hopkins program combines instruction with a full-time teaching experience. Mr. Carlton began teaching by his second week, in a classroom with the most severely disabled students at Patapsco High School in southeastern Baltimore County.

Mr. Carlton said constant critiques during the Hopkins program prepared him for his quick rise to assistant principal. After his first three years in the classroom, Patapsco Principal Barbara Russell felt confident enough to recommend him for an administrative position.

"If he was able to command the respect and attention of children with such severe problems, he was more than capable of functioning well within the general school population," Ms. Russell said. "He's probably the most successful teacher with three years' experience that I've ever seen."

With the increasing enrollment of minority students, capable black teachers are important, Ms. Russell said. "But I underline qualified and successful. It's not just, 'We need a black male teacher, so get one in there.' "

Donald I. Mohler, school system spokesman, said having more minority teachers and administrators helps break down barriers.

"Our challenge is that we are competing with schools and businesses all over the state because everyone is interested in the pool of talented African-Americans," Mr. Mohler said. "We have to convince them to come to Baltimore County."

Mr. Carlton said he felt supported by the system in his first years and, while he was happy teaching, being an administrator opened new avenues for him.

"As a teacher, I could influence a classroom full of students," he said. "As an administrator, I can influence a whole school."

At Woodlawn -- where 82 percent of the 1,360 students are black -- he seems to be putting that into practice. As he walked through the halls one day recently, students of all races stopped to chat.

While Mr. Carlton was monitoring a lunch break, sophomore Theora Alexander nabbed him and said she misses him; she hasn't gotten into trouble this school year, so she hasn't been sent to his office.

Theora said she got into several fights last year because of problems with her temper. This year, the 16-year-old has not had behavioral problems -- in part, she said, because of Mr. Carlton's influence.

"For him to be a principal, he does his job but he can still joke with you," Theora said. "When times got rough, he stood beside me and never gave up on me."

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