Annapolis principal stands by her actions

Changes, candidness net her praise, criticism

November 09, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Last month, Principal Deborah Williams tried to have a serious talk with six Annapolis High School students who had been sent to her office for cutting class. "They laughed," Williams recalled.

So she did something to get the teen-age boys' attention: She picked up printouts of the school's recent state test scores and flung them at the students, all of them black.

"You are represented in these numbers," said Williams, also African-American, pointing out black students as a group lag behind other races in each subject and account for a higher dropout rate.

Her brutally candid approach to long-standing issues at the school has exposed Williams - who is in her first year at Annapolis High - to both intense criticism and strong praise.

Accusing Williams of being confrontational and negative, some students and parents have demanded her removal. A few dozen students protested new rules she instituted, including a security ban on backpacks that are not transparent.

"There is no reason to go into a high school environment and create dissension and fear," said parent Tracey Hess.

Supporters, however, say she is addressing difficult problems others might avoid. They applaud her emphasis on boosting the performance of all students at the racially diverse school, which officials said suffered from academic and disciplinary troubles last year.

"I just think she needs to be given a chance," said Malinda Wilson, whose son is a senior. "She's real. What she's doing, the children need it."

Of the six students in the principal's office that day, Williams said she did not get through to five. But one boy looked intently at the printout and told Williams he was shocked by what the scores showed.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who hired the former Prince George's County administrator to make the school safer and reduce the achievement gap among races, has demonstrated confidence in her.

"I think things will be fine at Annapolis High in time, as she gets herself grounded," Smith said.

Everyone seems to agree that Williams has placed her stamp on the school in three months.

Sitting in her office on a recent afternoon, she talked about how much the dispute over her actions has worn on her. "I think the kids are getting as tired of this as I am," said Williams, 50.

Williams said she believes her most vocal critics are a small group of parents and students who view her as an outsider and who second-guess her actions. "There are people ... who think they're the ones [who] are supposed to make the decisions," she said.

The idea of consulting others about how to run the 1,600-student school doesn't sit well with Williams, who said she is used to being in control. From her desk, she frequently glances at a television monitor displaying nine security camera views of the school. She said she returns every phone call, sometimes late in the evenings or on Saturdays.

As a high school principal in Prince George's County, Williams said, she had less input from parents and was able to build an administrative team of her choice. She was, however, involuntarily transferred from that school into an administrative position, she said. Prince George's County officials would give no details on the reason for the transfer.

She said some teachers at her former school and at Annapolis High dislike her because she points out when they are negligent. "Sometimes when you ask people to do their jobs, that's what you get," Williams said.

Williams has told teachers that she will not tolerate students sleeping in class - she often rouses them herself. Making her rounds one day, she counted 35 students asleep at their desks, she said.

To tighten security at the school, Williams has banned students from wearing coats inside the building, in addition to the backpack rule. She also strictly enforces the dress code and lectures students about being on time and paying attention in class.

The reaction has been pointed and personal at times. A Web site launched by a parent upset about Williams has become a forum for people to rail against her. One message, purportedly posted by a teacher, said the principal "tries to intimidate people on a whim" and urged parents to picket the school board.

Soon after the site appeared, Williams responded, creating a student council to work on what she calls a "recovery effort." The first thing the council did was to hold a series of assemblies to allow the principal to discuss her vision for the school and to dispel rumors.

There were mixed reactions to the assemblies. Some said they understood better Williams' reasons for emphasizing school safety and good classroom behavior.

But others said they were offended when she told them that she was troubled about the disparity in academic performance among racial groups - that only 17 percent of black students passed a state algebra assessment last year, for example, compared with 48 percent of white students.

The school is about 45 percent black and 45 percent white.

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