WHEN YOU see Sandra Ashe in action, you get the answer to the question: What makes a good school?
It's the principal, stupid.
Ashe began her second year yesterday as principal of Rosemont Elementary in West Baltimore, the only neighborhood public school in Maryland (and possibly in the United States) operated by a state college. Ashe was recruited by Coppin State President Calvin W. Burnett and other Coppin officials after three years of false starts and wrong turns in the great experiment.
"We think we've got a winner," Burnett said the other day, and that seems to be the case. Ashe's previous posting at John Eager Howard Elementary, a couple miles east, was a huge success. "I was 11 years at John Eager Howard," Ashe said yesterday, "and we moved it from trembling on the edge of [state-ordered] reconstitution to five years of recognition from the state for consistent improvement."
The last time I saw Ashe was two years ago. On a 98-degree June morning, she'd been lifted by a Fire Department cherry picker to the roof of Howard on Linden Avenue. There, dressed as a beaver - the school mascot - Ashe had danced a jig to fulfill a promise that she would thus make a fool of herself if her kids would read 2,000 books in the spring semester.
Less demonstrably at Howard, Ashe took all four of the college reading courses now required of all elementary teachers in Maryland.
"How can I be an education leader and not know exactly what my teachers are required to teach?" Ashe said yesterday. "In fact, teachers have to know I can teach. They're not getting one up on me."
Ashe said her first year at Rosemont was "one of shaping and molding. There was a lot of change." But Ashe said Rosemont - and any other school - can be turned around in three years, five years maximum, if all elements are in place. "That's how long it took at John Eager Howard, and what I had to ask myself when I was asked to come here was whether I wanted to go through it again."
Ashe has huge advantages in her Coppin partnership. People from nearby Coppin are on Rosemont's campus daily, taking courses, observing. Coppin offers free tuition to any Rosemont employee - not just teachers. And Ashe keeps close tabs on the Coppin teachers-in-training.
"I hang out in the classrooms and watch for the good ones, and since I see them every day, I see them as college students and then as student teachers," she said. "So when I get a vacancy, I pounce."
Ashe's secret is partly indefinable and almost ineffable. It's called sound leadership. It has to do with how she relates to her staff, which she said "is a good barometer of how they relate to their students." Teachers, she said, are "hungry for direction and hungry for structure, and that's what I try to provide."
Good leadership also has to do with how the principal sees herself - not too seriously, knowing that she makes mistakes, laughing that she wore dark clothing on opening day because it disguises the evidence of a summer of good eating.
Ashe gave her age as 39 but said later she's been in the Baltimore system 30 years. "I started at 10," she said.
Rosemont's challenges are huge. When Coppin assumed management in 1999, the school had a 95 percent poverty rate (as measured by kids eligible for free lunches), a staggering student turnover rate of 44 percent and a weak pulse in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. (Entire grades were failing MSPAP's reading and math tests.) And this fall, 48 kids are retained in grade because they failed summer school.
It's a task that would make grown principals cry, but Ashe approaches it with quiet confidence. "If we could do it at John Eager Howard, we can do it here," she said.
Still, I was concerned when she excused herself, picked up a phone and asked her secretary, "Please, I need a drink."
Alas, it was water.
The statistics behind Maryland's SAT takers
When SAT scores are released each year, the profiles of college-bound students are more interesting than their scores. Here are some statistics from Maryland.
Forty thousand students took the test this year, three-quarters of them seniors. Twenty-three percent were in the top 10th of their high school classes. Just fewer than 11,000 had taken honors courses, and 7,763 had taken calculus. Spanish was the foreign language of choice among Maryland SAT takers (21,714), with French a distant second (8,178). One hundred students studied Greek.
Almost 23,000 students, a majority, planned to apply for financial aid in college. Twenty-two percent had family incomes over $100,000. Their SAT scores were the highest. Three percent of Maryland SAT takers had incomes less than $10,000. Their scores were the lowest.