The power of a strong principal

Leadership: Sarah Horsey pushes Pimlico Elementary's teachers and pupils to be the best in Baltimore.

May 29, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF


In a recent series of articles that involved ranking 329 elementary schools in the four largest Baltimore-area school systems as to their effectiveness in teaching reading, four Baltimore elementaries - Lakewood, Malcolm X, Montebello and Samuel F. B. Morse - should not have been ranked because of insufficient test data. In addition, the rankings of 18 other city elementary schools were based on three available test scores, not four scores as were rankings for the remaining 97 city elementary schools.

Principal Sarah Horsey spots the problem right away. One teacher says perimeter is expressed as feet. Another next door tells her class it's square feet.

"OK, we need to get this straight, so we're all teaching the children the same thing," Horsey tells a staff meeting she calls later that day. "If I'm confused, think about how the kids are trying to learn."

Just another classroom correction for Horsey, Pimlico Elementary's principal nuisance - and savior.

Let her into your class, she'll take over the lesson. Let her into your cafeteria, she'll stage a revival-style meeting to persuade children they're the smartest around. Let her into your school, she'll transform it into a place free of fights and full of learning.

"I don't stand in the background," Horsey says. "When I'm here, I'm going to be involved."

In other words, she's exactly the kind of principal needed by the Northwest Baltimore school - a school with such poor test scores in 1996 that it was on the verge of being taken over by the state.

Today, with almost half of Baltimore's schools on state probation for low test scores, Pimlico is the one closest to escaping that status. Its state test scores are far above the city averages - and not too far behind the state averages - even as its neighborhood remains mired in Baltimore's web of drugs and poverty.

"Pimlico is Pimlico again, and it's all due to Ms. Horsey," says Louise Hamilton, grandmother of two Pimlico pupils. "She came in here and did it, and for this area, this school has come a long ways."

Horsey's single-minded drive to improve instruction helped push Pimlico to a level far above its peers in reading. A Sun statistical search for exceptional schools found its students score higher on reading tests than all other city elementaries when student demographic factors are held constant.

In the past four years under Horsey, Pimlico has become the proverbial rose in the forest. Rare is the inner-city school that has risen from the depths of failure to compete on Maryland tests with the average performance of schools in much more well-off suburbs.

Like the other highly effective schools in the Baltimore area identified by The Sun's analysis, Pimlico relies on a consistent set of key practices to boost reading achievement.

These include a heavy dose of lessons in letters and sounds, or phonics; teaching in the smallest possible groups with frequent testing to catch those falling behind; and tight supervision of school time to spend as much of it as possible on reading.

Taking charge

Above all else, though, Pimlico has built its success on Horsey, a 55-year-old principal who sees her role as the leader of teachers and who appears to spend most of every day making sure they teach children to read.

Expectations of pupil achievement used to be high at Pimlico. Thirty years ago, it was among the city's more respected public elementaries. But as the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood succumbed to poverty, boarded-up rowhouses and corner drug salesmen, expectations at the school declined.

By the mid-1990s, Pimlico was no different than the dozens of other failing elementaries across the city. Achievement was low. Trash and graffiti were everywhere. Parents were seldom found in classrooms.

Horsey came to Pimlico in 1996 from Rognel Heights Elementary, a school in a more middle-class neighborhood. She arrived just after Pimlico was officially threatened with state takeover because barely a handful of its students were reading on grade level.

"The first day of school, I was thinking to myself, `Oh, no. I've made a terrible mistake,'" Horsey says. "I couldn't believe what I had gotten myself into."

While Pimlico had a core of veteran teachers from the days when it was successful, much of its staff was inexperienced and transferred out as quickly as possible. Some veterans were, in Horsey's opinion, overdue for retirement, more intent on enjoying morning coffee than beginning reading lessons when the school bell rang.

So she pushed some of them out, racing up and down three flights of stairs after her morning announcements to document their lack of prompt attention to instruction.

The `Pimlico walk'

Of Pimlico's 600 or so students, almost all now qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and almost a quarter of them move in or out each school year.

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