Principal aims for turnaround Oak View: To improve test scores and reduce discipline problems at the school, Montgomery County calls on its administrator of the year.

September 26, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Honored for turning around one of Montgomery County's worst elementary schools, Principal Joanne Busalacchi has gotten her reward: the county's worst elementary school.

But instead of begging off or accelerating her retirement plans, Busalacchi has embraced the challenge of serving simultaneously as principal of both schools -- and of making Oak View Elementary in Silver Spring respectable again.

Strike that.

"We're going to be a model school for the nation," insists the Montgomery school system's administrator of the year, a 58-year-old with twinkling eyes and a Boston accent.

Oak View is a suburban school with inner-city ills: high poverty, rock-bottom test scores and an aging building.

Its shortcomings are outlined in a civil rights complaint filed in May by parents and being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education.

In a county that for years boasted the best test scores in Maryland (and vows to recapture that honor from Howard County), a federal inquiry into a school matter, compounded by the case's racial overtones, is an embarrassment.

Busalacchi believes she can do at Oak View what she has done at nearby New Hampshire Estates Elementary -- improve test scores and reduce discipline problems.

"We'll have a significant turnaround this year," she predicts, "a big turnaround over three years."

Many parents gave Busalacchi an ovation at a recent community meeting at Oak View. "The excitement in the air is palpable," PTA co-president Barbara Eyman said.

But others parents note that New Hampshire Estates, the kindergarten-through-second grade school paired with Oak View, which has grades three through six, is also part of the federal complaint. Wary of the motives of a school board under scrutiny, they wonder whether Busalacchi is a savior or a sop.

"I understand they're apprehensive," Busalacchi says of the community and her new staff.

But she adds that working with the same children throughout their elementary years lends continuity to their educational experience. The two schools are about a mile apart.

The parents who filed the federal complaint remain unconvinced, asking how one woman can successfully split her time between two schools.

"She's very charismatic and has engaged the community," says Peyton Sturges. "But if they gave us the best principal, why not give us a whole instead of a half? The problem is bigger than Ms. B."

Oak View's problems, summed up in the complaint filed in May, were years in the making and show a community in transition from an overwhelming white majority to a mixed population -- heavily Latino -- that includes large communities of immigrants.

More than three-quarters of the pupils at Oak View and New Hampshire Estates qualify for free and reduced meals. English is a second language for 28 percent of the youngsters.

In state achievement tests last year, New Hampshire Estates' pupils performed close to the state average. Oak View pupils had reading and writing scores far below the state average, the complaint says.

Together, the schools have a nonwhite enrollment of 91 percent -- almost twice the average in the school system and 20 percent higher than the nine other elementary schools in the area.

"The children who need the public education system the most aren't getting a good break," says Sturges, who believes what may be needed is a study of community as well as classroom needs.

Busalacchi worked 16-hour weekdays this summer and a full day on Saturdays. Curriculum and disciplinary codes were modified, schedules written and rewritten.

She met some resistance from members of the Oak View staff, who questioned why they had to learn the teaching methods used at New Hampshire Estates.

"Well," Busalacchi began patiently, "60 years ago our mothers washed clothes by hand and the clothing was clean. But where '' do we go from there?"

L She urged her new staff to learn something about each child.

"You only have 20 kids, surely you can give each one of them three minutes. That's only an hour a week," she said.

Pub Date: 9/26/98

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