Singing school's praises

The Education Beat

Success: Principal JoAnn Cason is credited with leading the turnaround at Woodson Elementary, where test scores soared after a new curriculum was instituted.

June 14, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

JOANN CASON was running in overdrive yesterday at Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary School.

The Woodson principal was up at 5:30 a.m. and at work long before her 425 students began arriving at the Cherry Hill school. Cason had arranged a performance by the 90-piece orchestra of the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, N.Y., a high-poverty public elementary and junior high school that is excelling academically.

Wearing a formal white dress topped by four strands of pearls, Cason (pronounced "CaSAWN") paced the school inside and out, checking on the eats and drinks, the tour guides, the hospitality suite hostesses and the local Dunbar (High School) Jazz Ensemble, the impressive opening act for the late-arriving New Yorkers.

School isn't out for the summer until tomorrow, but yesterday was clearly the culmination of a marvelous year at Woodson. Test scores soared, showing particular strength in the fourth and fifth grades, where many other city schools are stagnating. Cason breathed new life into the school's Calvert School curriculum, the traditional course of studies imported six years ago from the private school by the same name in leafy groves near the Johns Hopkins University.

It's not particularly leafy by the public housing projects around Woodson, but Cason has landscaped the 5-acre campus. One of her first acts when she took over last fall was to add the "Dr." to the school's title in honor of the philosopher and founder of the African-American Historical Association.

Now she's adding an arts emphasis. The arts are already an integral part of Calvert's classical instruction, but Cason said she "dreams of integrating the arts in everything we do. We'll make an excellent school even better."

Woodson hasn't reached the level of the KIPP school, named after its Knowledge Is Power Program. It was recently named by the Heritage Foundation as one of the nation's 25 most effective high-poverty schools and then was featured on "60 Minutes."

But it has that potential, with high-powered leadership, a hard-working and relatively stable staff, active parents, a curriculum in which teachers and administrators are invested and hundreds of hours of tutoring over the past three years by employees of business partners, including The Sun.

The Calvert curriculum at first seems an unlikely vehicle. Introduced to the public nearly a decade ago at Barclay School in North Baltimore, the curriculum is formal, classical and rigorous -- just what you would expect from an "exclusive" independent school such as Calvert. So when Superintendent Richard Hunter, who lost his job largely because of his opposition to Calvert, called it a "rich man's curriculum," Calvert supporters turned the remark on its head.

Why not a rich man's curriculum? they asked. "We already had a poor man's curriculum," Gertrude Williams, retired Barclay principal, said Monday at a Calvert School conference in Baltimore.

Though school reform always has ups and downs over the long term, the Calvert experience here has been generally positive at Barclay and Woodson. (A third school, the New Song Academy, is a recent Calvert addition.) But here's the kicker: Cason is leaving after only a year at Woodson. Having been spotted as a winner, she's been assigned to Gilmor Elementary, one of the three failing schools turned over by the state to the Edison experiment in privatization.

Cason, who declined to give her age, fought back tears in discussing the move. It's not that she doesn't want to go; she'll hand-pick her staff and be very much in the limelight. "It's a huge challenge, and I like to stick my neck out," she said.

But what's to happen in Cherry Hill? A new leader hasn't been chosen. "No one in the world is irreplaceable," she told the educators at the Calvert conference. "There's a leader out there waiting for me to get out of the way. Besides, my kids at Woodson have cousins over at [Gilmor]. I'll tell my kids, `You have eaten for five or six years with Calvert, and you have eaten well. Do you want your cousins over at 107 to eat well, too."

Baltimore has a long record of replacing principals in the middle of reform, then seeing the reform dissipate without the leadership it needs, while the schools slip back to mediocrity. Cason is aware of that. She said she's praying for "someone to come behind, because I care so deeply."

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