'American hero' in the hot seat Coleman Elementary: Principal Addie E. Johnson has won lavish praise from fellow educators and from a national magazine. State officials consider her school one of the worst in Maryland.

The Education Beat

March 31, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN TEACHERS at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore return after a three-week break that begins tomorrow, they might want to teach a lesson on the meaning of "irony," using their school as an example.

Coleman is Maryland's only "year-round" public school, meaning that there are four 45-day sessions, each followed by a 15-day "intersession." Thus, the three-week break beginning tomorrow. Thus, one of the reasons Coleman Elementary is on Maryland's education map.

Another reason, alas, is that Coleman is one of the 35 city schools designated "reconstitution-eligible" in this year's round of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). This means that scores on state performance tests have been declining at the school for three years. It means, to be blunt, that the state Education Department has deemed Coleman one of the state's worst schools.

But there's a third, much newer reason Coleman is on the map, and here's where the irony comes in. Last week the principal, Addie E. Johnson, was named one of 10 "American Heroes in Education" by Reader's Digest.

Ms. Johnson was selected from 650 nominations nationwide, and members of Reader's Digest's two judging panels were at least as distinguished as the folks on West Baltimore Street who put Coleman on the state hit list; the judges in the Reader's Digest contest were drawn from the national associations of elementary and secondary school principals, as well as the American Federation of Teachers.

Coleman Elementary will get $10,000 from the magazine, while Ms. Johnson will receive $5,000, which she can use for a trip to the Caribbean, if she chooses. The $10,000 will come in handy, since the school (as do all others in Baltimore) has to rebate to the city $30 per student to help erase a budget deficit.

Ms. Johnson says she'll use part of her personal $5,000 to augment programs she has launched at Coleman. Among them are the year-round school -- Ms. Johnson wants to make the intersession time more meaningful -- and a cooperative program with Coppin State College to improve her students' thinking skills.

As for her school's appearance on Maryland's dishonor roll, Ms. Johnson says, "Everything happens for a reason," and she adds that Coleman's staff is working hard to reverse the MSPAP slide.

Meanwhile, the irony hangs there: How could a school judged atrocious by the Maryland Department of Education be judged splendid by panels of leading educators?

You could say the award went to Ms. Johnson, not her staff or her school. (She was nominated by one of her teachers.) But Jan Braun, who directs the American Heroes contest, says the judges "want to see measurable results" at a school in addition to inspiring leadership.

Maybe the lesson in this irony is that, in judging a school, we shouldn't rely as heavily as does the state on test scores. Test scores are 12 of the 13 criteria used in assessing elementary school performance in Maryland. (The 13th is attendance, which is high at Coleman.)

Ms. Johnson is an inspiring leader, well-liked in her community, respected (even envied) by fellow principals and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey. She's a risk-taker. For example, she established a professionally managed investment fund at her school, the proceeds of which are earmarked for college scholarships. The governor, the mayor, the state schools superintendent all have stopped by Coleman in the past three years to see how she does it.

Is Ms. Johnson trying to do too much, as suggested here a few weeks ago? When inspiring leadership fails to produce higher test scores, what are we to make of it? Or perhaps, like the Tesseract schools of Education Alternatives Inc., Coleman hasn't had enough time to prove itself.

Education is seldom easily packaged and never easily judged. Addie Johnson knows that.

'Human again'

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's restoring of enough money in the state budget to keep 51 prison teachers on the job was hailed as a brave blow against penny wisdom and pound foolishness. An educated prisoner is less likely to be a recidivist. Everyone knows that, but prisons are easy targets for budget cutting.

The governor restored education funding mainly for prisoners in vocational and high school equivalency programs. But sadly, when Congress eliminated funds last year for federal Pell Grants for prisoners, college programs in prisons across the nation, including Maryland, were terminated.

Education Beat last week visited a noncredit writing class taught in the Maryland Penitentiary by Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty of the College of Notre Dame. A dozen men talked about the meaning of the formal education they can get and the therapeutic value of writing.

Ismail Jaber said he was one English course short of a college degree when he was cut off last year.

Writing, and learning about writing while in prison, he said, "makes me feel human again."

Paul Inskeep, a "lifer," has taken Sister Mary Ellen's course for five of the 14 years she has taught it -- without pay. He said he sometimes uses his home address in sending out free-lance manuscripts. "Being in this situation is something I am not proud of," he wrote us the day after the class.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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