A fresh beginning after stormy year

Lilley: Annapolis High's principal focuses on open communication and academic success.

August 30, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Sitting at a table with student government leaders and advisers on a recent afternoon, Annapolis High School Principal Donald R. Lilley detailed what they could expect when classes begin today.

No more food in the halls. One exit for those leaving during the day. Teacher-supervised homework time before extracurricular activities start.

But Lilley, 51 - brought in midway through last year amid controversy over his predecessor, Deborah Williams - pressed the student leaders to tell their friends and give him feedback. These were not changes he developed himself, he said. Rather, they evolved from recommendations from parents, teachers and staff.

"This is not Mr. Lilley's school," the educator told the students. "This is everybody's school."

That's a sentiment that some parents and staff say was lost before he arrived in March and began quelling much of the angry debate between Williams' supporters and detractors, which spilled over into the news media and a protest Web site.

After publicly supporting Williams for months, Superintendent Eric J. Smith abruptly transferred her in mid-March, noting "security" concerns at the school under her leadership. Williams sued the school system over the move.

Many in the community say their new principal has done much to repair the fissures that developed last year around Williams, whom some considered harsh and uncommunicative.

"I think he has a calming manner, but I think he is also a person who really wants to take initiative," said Steve Johnson, whose daughter recently graduated from Annapolis High and whose son is entering 10th grade.

Smith said, "You won't see him yelling and screaming a whole lot, but he does get his point across."

Lilley, a North Carolina native, left his post as principal of Annapolis Middle suddenly. Smith asked him to take the Annapolis High job at 9:30 a.m. March 17. He was introduced to the faculty at 2:15 that day.

"It was surprising to be asked," Lilley said.

He had almost finished his second year as principal of Annapolis Middle School - his 28th year working with that age group in Anne Arundel. With three months of school left, Lilley relied on longtime staff to keep the school's routine afloat and learned all he could about high school, particularly Annapolis High School.

The school draws students from expensive homes along the Chesapeake Bay and from public housing communities. It also faces a racial gap in test scores.

Fewer than one-third of black 10th-grade boys at Annapolis reached advanced or proficient levels on last year's Maryland School Assessment tests, a slight improvement over the previous year. But nearly 85 percent of white male 10th-graders scored at those levels, up about 15 percentage points over the previous year.

At the same time, fewer black students than white students took Advanced Placement and other accelerated courses.

"For so long we've had some students do quite well here," Lilley - who, like Williams, is African-American - told the students at the recent meeting. "This year we need everyone to do well here."

His ideas include a program for ninth-graders to ensure they graduate, as well as frequent grade reports to target students with C averages for mentoring and counseling.

Lilley also brought together a committee of teachers, parents and staff, who spent two months investigating what was good and bad at Annapolis, and what needed adjusting.

He also is expanding some of Williams' initiatives, such as starting after-school activities at 3 p.m. - building in time for homework before such activities start - and is seeking funds to have teachers supervise students between dismissal at 1:55 p.m. and 3 p.m.

`Start to heal'

And he has taken steps to smooth relations between the administration and the staff. One example: returning teacher mailboxes to the school office so they can easily retrieve their messages. At his request, a third of 98 teachers also signed up for training to promote the achievement of students of different backgrounds.

"I knew he was a good person who could probably bring some peace and begin to help the rifts start to heal," said Pam Bukowski, a parent volunteer at Annapolis middle and high schools who lost a race for a position on the school board.

Lilley was born in Gates County, N.C., and recalled spending his after-school time at the kitchen table with his brothers and older sister, working on their assignments. Although neither of his parents graduated from high school, he said, "They were adamant: `You will get an education.'"

After majoring in art design and art education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Lilley followed his older sister to Anne Arundel County in 1976, where she taught at Severna Park Middle School. She now teaches at Severn River Middle. His two brothers are educators as well.

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