Six months into an experiment to improve troubled city schools, Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is already declaring the program a success and says she hopes to expand it.
"We have received the most wonderful feedback from staff," Grasmick said. "They practically tackle you when you go into these schools; they're so excited about the level of leadership."
Last summer, Grasmick hired three suburban principals to take over floundering schools. The administrators, whose $125,000 salaries are among the highest in the school system, are scheduled to remain in the Maryland Distinguished Principal Fellows program for two more years.
As a result of the successful performance of the three leaders - Hamilton Middle School's Stephen Gibson, Brehms Lane Elementary's Edward Cozzolino and Johnston Square Elementary's Eileen Copple - Grasmick is seeking similar applicants for next year.
Some, such as union administrators and political figures, initially complained because the fellows were being paid thousands of dollars more than the highest-paid principal in the district and talented Baltimore City principals weren't tapped for the higher-paying jobs.
But Grasmick insists the money has been well spent.
Although no test scores are available yet, Grasmick has received positive anecdotal evidence regarding improved morale, enhanced structure and organization, better-behaved students and more involved parents.
"I've heard it from staff. I've heard it from parents. I've heard it from school board members," Grasmick said. "Here are people in the schools doing it. Not just talking about it esoterically. They're doing it."
At Brehms Lane Elementary in Northeast Baltimore - a school with 820 children but room for only 567 - Cozzolino said he has helped teachers feel more supported.
"I spend an inordinate amount of time talking to teachers about instruction," he said. "We're looking at teaching as an art and something that you can learn and improve through discussion and ongoing feedback."
And at Johnston Square in East Baltimore, Copple said student behavior is exponentially better - a real coup in a community that school officials agree had "basically disintegrated."
"We just had two assemblies today where we gave out awards and certificates," she said. "In September, attempting to have an assembly was next to impossible. These kids have come so far in behavior. I'm so excited."
At Hamilton Middle in Northeast Baltimore, the eighth-grade pass rate on the Maryland Functional math tests, which measure rudimentary skills on a sixth-grade level, has improved 80 percent.
Cozzolino and Copple, who both worked in Baltimore County, said there are more similarities than differences between suburban and city schools.
"The kids are just as bright and the parents are just as committed," Cozzolino said.
"I think what we've found is that kids are kids are kids," Copple said. "They really do want structure and order in their lives. They'll fight it and fight it and fight it. But they want that."
Principals at the three schools say there's still much more to be done - and that significant changes should start to show by the end of next year.