Principal credited for rescue of school

Restores reputation after racial incidents

May 19, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Paul Vandenberg was a middle school principal in northern Anne Arundel County in the spring of 2000 when he heard that trouble was brewing at the south county school where he began his teaching career.

A white student at Southern High School had performed a song during a school assembly that made crude references to lynching - and tensions were high. So when Vandenberg learned that Southern High's principal was going to retire, he immediately put in for the job.

"I wanted to come back and build up the self-confidence of the kids and the school's reputation," he said.

Three years later, students, parents and teachers say Vandenberg has accomplished what he set out to do, by taking charge with a firm hand.

Now, Vandenberg, 48, looks on from the vantage point of experience as another school - South River High, five miles away in Edgewater - works to rebuild its image after racial problems that led to the arrests last month of five students.

"They'll get through it, just like we did," he said of South River. "They'll be the better for it."

When he arrived at Southern High in the fall of 2000, Vandenberg found a school community eager to move beyond the painful events of the previous spring.

Divisions within the student body - 78 percent white and 13 percent black - had been heightened by the performance of the racist song. A Confederate flag had been painted on the school's water tower, and racist graffiti was found on walls and lockers.

Vandenberg had a two-pronged strategy: set strict rules of student conduct and get parents and church leaders involved in the school.

He drew up a list of the 67 disruptive students who were responsible for most of the disciplinary referrals at the 1,500-student school, warned them of the possibility of expulsion and had them sign behavior contracts. "Most of them came around," he said. "Once they found out they were on that list, they were embarrassed."

He also set higher expectations for student behavior, dress and attendance, and he enforced a consistent suspension policy to discourage the use of derogatory language.

At first, the suspension rate shot up because of stricter enforcement. But it decreased once students got the message, according to the principal.

"Mr. Vandenberg sets rules and [students] follow them, so everyone gets along better," said senior Sherron Johnson.

Next, Vandenberg invited parents and church leaders to become more involved in the school. He was impressed by the community's response. "I knew things would be fine when we had that first PTA meeting," he said. "No one was there to whine. It was, `Put us to work. What can we do to help?'"

These days, officers on the beat drop in when they're in the neighborhood, to walk the halls and chat with students. Parents and local pastors sometimes eat lunch in the school cafeteria.

On a recent afternoon, as he stood in the school lobby talking to visiting county police Officer Greg Speed, the principal chuckled as he recounted a student's complaint. "Mr. Vandenberg, it's kind of hard to curse with my minister standing in the hallway," the boy told him.

Valentino Owens Sr. is one of a handful of parents who regularly helps monitor the hallways or lunch lines. "I feel at home there," Owens said. "It's almost like I'm one of the teachers. ... When a parent can come in and be welcomed like that, that's a great relationship."

Vandenberg also started an advisory program to give students and teachers a chance to become more familiar with one another. Every Tuesday morning, students meet in groups with a faculty adviser to talk about school issues or current events. The earliest advisory meetings centered on discussions about tolerance and diversity.

Teachers who remember the turbulent period three years ago say they now are more vigilant about signs of trouble.

"We have a really proactive administration," said special education teacher Jana Williams. "Now, even one or two kids saying something [offensive] is enough for us to say, `Stop it. This is not going to happen here again.'"

Vandenberg refuses to take sole credit for the school's improvement. "It wasn't just me," he insists. "It really was the teachers and the community that rallied around the school."

Last spring, Southern High received official recognition for its work: a human relations award from the school system.

"They've gone a long way to improve the climate down there," said Leslie Stanton, human relations specialist for Arundel schools. "They really haven't had anything remotely close to a crisis since that particular episode" in 2000.

Southern's older students remember that painful time, when the student body was polarized by race. Most African-Americans kept to themselves during lunch. Some students wore clothes depicting the Confederate flag despite anger it caused.

"You knew the people that were prejudiced against a particular race," said Brent Heller, the senior class president.

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