When Edward Cozzolino became principal of Middlesex Elementary in 1993, the school's test scores were among the worst in Baltimore County. When he left in 1997, Middlesex was a National Blue Ribbon School.
When Cozzolino arrived to take over nearby Shady Spring Elementary in Rosedale in 1999, the school was struggling academically and with behavior problems. Troublemakers often were lined up outside the office, and pupils routinely banged their fists against the partitions that serve as classroom walls.
Now, scores are on the rise and discipline problems are declining, a testament to a gifted leader who is working with teachers, parents and pupils to ensure that children learn, regardless of ZIP code.
"All of the research, everything we know about education, tells us that the principal is the most critical variable in student achievement and school success," said William Lawrence, the executive director for schools in northeastern Baltimore County. "There is no other way to frame the debate. When we talk about `All students can learn regardless of social issues,' Ed believes that. ...
"Our challenge is to try to make it happen in more and more schools."
Cozzolino, 50, knows he has been successful in what can be considered "difficult" schools, those with a large minority population, and those at which most children are from low-income families. Still, he doesn't want to be the focus of attention. "Talk about my staff," he says. "What these folks do is just incredible."
First, though, there is Ed Cozzolino. Raised in New Haven, Conn., he moved to Baltimore in 1969 to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He figured he would teach for a few years and move on. But he fell in love with it.
"I taught kids to love to learn and to love to inquire and investigate and think creatively and critically," he says.
Cozzolino taught elementary school, and by 1993 was running one. After Middlesex, he spent a year running Fullerton Elementary in Overlea and a year as a mentor to first- and second-year principals. Then, given the choice of several schools, he picked Shady Spring.
"This was the kind of school I feel most at home in - a school that has enormous potential and for some obvious reasons ... was not living up to [it]," he said. "It was my interpretation that it just needed some focus, some consistency and some staff development."
He looked at the numbers and the answers were simple, he said. "Either we're not teaching it or we're teaching it in a way they're not learning it."
Changes for staff, pupils
He has increased staff development and planning time, and instituted a code of conduct that pupils repeat during morning announcements: "I am respectful. I am responsible. I am prepared. I am safe. I will succeed. Here at Shady Spring we accept nothing less than our personal best."
In many classrooms, teachers wear stopwatches around their necks, part of a philosophy to keep classes moving and to reward pupils with free time for moving speedily from task to task and listening to directions.
"They could take 10 minutes to get out a piece of paper," said Julie Anne Lynch, a fifth-grade teacher.
With a laugh, teachers call Cozzolino "the King of Think-Pair-Share," which is a trick to make sure that children pay attention in class. In the past, a teacher asked questions and called on pupils. That gave each child a 1-in-25 shot of being called on - really more of a 1-in-100 shot, because the teacher often called on children in front raising their hands. For many, it was an invitation to zone out.
Change is apparent. Take Lynch's class. On this day, they start math class by answering a few drill questions on the board (soon, they will learn about measurement by making salsa, but first things first). "Turn to your partner and tell him how to find the area," she says. There's a lot of mumbling of "length times width." Then, she calls on one person to share the answer with the class. Nearly the whole class is engaged.
Cozzolino is always searching for new teachers, keeping an eye open for good student teachers who soon will graduate or established teachers who are unhappy where they are. For every opening, he interviews 10 people. He lets some fourth- and fifth-graders participate in the process. Some schools have to take whoever applies.
Focus on reading, writing
He also has shifted the focus at Shady Spring to reading and writing. Other subjects are not ignored, but if you're focused on too many things, you're focused on nothing at all, he says.
Cozzolino and the teachers talk about why their African-American pupils don't perform as well as their white pupils - and try to devise different ways of teaching to help everyone improve.
"Since Mr. Cozzolino's been there, I think the school's been great ... " said Susan Landis, whose daughter Catherine is a fourth-grader. "They want you to get everything your child needs. It's not a struggle as in other schools."