High school official resolute

Fired Annapolis High principal stands behind her controversial actions

`I think they had it in for me'

Williams claims problems, minority inequity ignored

March 21, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

A day after being forced to leave her post as Annapolis High School's principal last week, a hurt but resigned Deborah Williams said she believed her efforts to solve academic and discipline problems at the troubled school were doomed by factors beyond her control.

Speaking publicly for the first time since her removal, Williams said she was surprised in her first year at the high school to find what she considered a culture of indifference toward the low academic performance of minority students, who make up half the school's population.

She also said she was unprepared for the determined resistance she encountered from some teachers and parents, who began to demand her ouster shortly after the start of the school year.

"I don't think there's anything I could have done different to make the situation any better," Williams said in an hour-long phone interview Thursday. "I think they had it in for me from day one."

Williams' assessment of Annapolis High - which has been echoed by top school administrators - reveals a sharp divide in public opinion about the county's flagship school.

Parents of high-achieving students have found little reason to complain about the school, which features the International Baccalaureate magnet program and basketball and football teams that consistently participate in state playoffs. Some were angered that Williams had been brought in to make reforms they felt were not needed.

Many African-American parents, however, say they long have felt that the school ignored academic inequities between black and white students, and found hope in Williams' emphasis on helping low-achieving students.

Williams left her post Wednesday, when Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith abruptly announced that he was replacing her.

Smith had stood by his selection of Williams for eight months, despite opposition. But last week, voicing concerns about student safety, Smith said Williams' relationship with the faculty had soured to such a degree that he no longer was confident the school was capable of handling a crisis.

Williams said she understood Smith's concerns, although she felt that she and other administrators had the building under control.

But Williams acknowledged that she was "consumed" during her time as principal with disciplinary issues that stemmed, she believed, from an indifferent attitude some teachers held toward student misbehavior.

"There is such a low expectation for minorities in that building that it sickens me," she said. "Just the fact that kids take for granted that they can walk the halls. ... When kids didn't show up for class, nobody reported that they were missing."

The problems expressed by Williams were similar to those Smith said he observed at the school, which led him to replace longtime principal Joyce Smith last summer.

"There were fights, open disrespect between students, [from] students to teachers, a defiance that had me concerned," Eric Smith said.

And there were academic concerns as well, Superintendent Smith said. "I wasn't pleased at all [with] the quality of instruction, particularly in classrooms that had large concentrations of low income students," he said.

Last year, the dropout rate among black students was 2.5 times that among whites, according to the school system. Only 14 percent of black students passed a state-mandated English exam, while 62 percent of whites passed.

Many parents and teachers have cried foul about such negative portrayals of their school.

"I want him [Smith] to really look at us and tell us what is this perception? Where did it come from?" said Susan Hersman, an English teacher who said she takes equal care in teaching lower-level and advanced students. "There is not a segment of the population of Annapolis High School that is neglected."

Valerie Pringle, the mother of a 10th-grade student, said she never felt the school was unsafe.

"If there'd been some information given to us about, `There's these problems and we need a change,' then some people would have been more willing," said Pringle, who teaches at another county school.

School officials acknowledge that they had not publicly discussed the school's failings until this year, a likely reason for the lack of consensus.

"The history of Annapolis High School, for probably the last 30 years, has been one of almost separate and unequal schools in one building," said Deputy Superintendent Kenneth Lawson. "We were not effective in helping the community understand that there was this problem."

Williams' aggressive leadership style did not sit well with parents and teachers who felt Annapolis High was on the right track.

Particularly because the Prince George's County transplant was new to Anne Arundel, many people viewed her as an outsider and bristled at the new safety and disciplinary policies she imposed soon after her arrival. Some teachers, Williams said, rejected her suggestions that they teach inattentive youngsters using active learning strategies instead of lecturing.

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