Change at the top at Van Bokkelen Anne Arundel: Troubled school's principal wasn't to blame, but change still has merit.

February 12, 1996

IN ONE RESPECT, public school principals are like sports coaches. They don't last long when something goes wrong, regardless of the extent to which they're responsible. Thus, the removal of Principal Charles Owens from Severn's Van Bokkelen Elementary was predictable from the moment state educators threatened to take over the school if test scores don't improve.

What parents need to know is whether this change is anything more than Anne Arundel County Superintendent Carol S. Parham trying to prove she's serious about getting this school on track; whether a new principal really is in the best interests of the children.

By virtually all accounts, for the past five years, Charles Owens has been a dedicated principal in a job that may be the most difficult in the county's system. The three communities from which his students are drawn are full of the socioeconomic problems that keep kids from learning: family troubles, poverty, crime, abuse, lack of discipline. No principal can overcome these ills on his own. That requires a broad effort by elected and community leaders -- and such an effort has not been made to date.

Mr. Owens has done as much as he could in his role as a principal, making his school a safer and more disciplined place, trying to foster parent involvement, dealing with students' problems individually. But as David Boschert, a former county councilman who once represented that area, explained, "His hands were tied. He couldn't do much because he wasn't getting support from others to deal with those problems."

That said, a change of principals at Van Bokkelen is not without merit. State educators expect Dr. Parham to send Van Bokkelen in a new direction. A change in administration is part of that. Her replacement as principal, Rose Tasker, has impressive experience working with programs geared to poorcommunities. vTC The superintendent appears not to have made a change merely for the sake of change. Of course, Van Bokkelen will improve marginally at best if the plan to save it stops here. Switching principals is easy. The difficult changes -- in curriculum, structure and elected and civic leaders' willingness to confront the problems that are behind these children's failure -- are the ones that will matter.

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