`Each child as an individual'

Eileen L. Copple: Johnston Square Elementary

The Principals : Challenge In The City

July 18, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

For years, anyone walking past the main office at Cockeysville's elementary school could hear Christmas music as well as the uplifting message of the principal. Eileen L. Copple used an open door, a deep reservoir of encouraging words, and a year-round play list of holiday songs to enlist parents, teachers and pupils in her successful effort to lift achievement levels at the Baltimore County school.

Now Copple, the former principal at Padonia International Elementary School and most recently leader of a Baltimore County team dedicated to reviving the system's worst performing schools, faces an even more difficult challenge.

But friends, colleagues and parents who worked with Copple expect she will employ her usual mix of openness, optimism and unconventionality to help each child at Baltimore's Johnston Square Elementary School, where classrooms are crowded, teachers lack experience, parents avoid involvement, and drug deals go down across the street.

"I see my most important task as leading my staff in looking at each child as an individual," Copple wrote in her application for the position. "Our goal is to educate each child. If educating each child means deviating from the norm then my job is to build the strength in each teacher to pursue that goal."

George E. Hohl, executive director of the Association of Elementary School Administrators, a Baltimore County group that Copple led last year, has volunteered at Johnston Square for the past two years, and said the school needs money, supplies, parent involvement and teacher training.

At Padonia Elementary, a school of 300 pupils who speak 30 languages, Copple invited immigrant parents to lecture about their cultures, got a community group to pay for a playground, and provided training for teachers to prepare pupils for statewide assessment tests.

In 1994, Copple's first year at the school, 36 percent of fifth-graders earned a satisfactory score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program; by last year, 70 percent did. Scores rose similarly for third-graders and in other subjects.

"She made my daughter feel special," said Kimberly Bettencourt, a former PTA president. Copple prodded Bettencourt's 10-year-old daughter, Bethany, into better performance with encouragement. Bethany writes letters to Copple, and Copple sends back postcards.

Karen Cashen, who was assistant principal under Copple and now leads Padonia Elementary, said Copple was a mentor to her. "She gave me so many opportunities to take on principal responsibilities, so when I became principal it was a smooth transition," Cashen said.

To improve students' reading and writing, Cashen said, Copple had physical-education teachers incorporate those subjects into their classes and grouped students by ability, not age. To reach struggling students, she sent teachers to workshops, encouraged them to try different approaches and sent pupils to after-school tutorials.

Copple is on vacation and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Copple, 53, raised two daughters on her own, and cares for her elderly mother. Despite the difficulties, Copple exudes a positive attitude, right down to the Christmas jingles she loves to play year-round in her office, car and Baltimore home, friends said.

Last year, Copple oversaw eight former teachers who worked with the district's 20 lowest-performing schools and offered plans and guidance for turning them around.

"I think they're on the right track to getting things done," said Janet-Lisa Phelps-Young, a former PTA president at Southwest Academy, which received help. The team talked with parents for two hours about improving the middle school.

Kathy Volk, director of elementary school initiatives at the Maryland State Department of Education who led nearby Timonium Elementary School when Copple took over Padonia Elementary, said Copple applied for the city posting because she wanted to return to a school full-time and was looking for a challenge.

"She figures out what the issues are and then does whatever it takes to address them - and in a way that doesn't turn people off," Volk said.

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