School leader all `about the kids'

The Maryland Association of Student Councils named Connie Lewis of Atholton High its principal of the year for support of her students.

April 24, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

This past winter, student leaders at Atholton High School proposed holding a dance - fun for students but a logistical headache for administrators.

With only three weeks to plan the event, Susan Karlheim, a faculty adviser for Atholton's Student Government Association, figured Principal Connie Lewis would reject the idea. But after some negotiation over the type of music, dancing and lighting that would be allowed, Lewis gave the go-ahead.

For Lewis, "it's about the kids," Karlheim said.

For support of her students, Lewis was recognized this month as the principal of the year by the Maryland Association of Student Councils - an honor that she said "means more to me than anything else."

"It's not political," said Lewis, who was nominated by the school's SGA. "It comes from the students. They are the client, the customer."

Students and teachers at the Columbia school describe Lewis as a straight-shooter and a strict administrator who always has the students' best interest at heart and treats Atholton as an extension of her home.

"She's strict, but she's motivational," said Stephanie Korba, 17, a senior. "She wants you to do well."

William Davis, an assistant principal at Atholton, who has worked with Lewis for a decade, described her this way: "She believes that if you establish parameters for behavior and achievement, almost all students would meet those high expectations."

Lewis also is known for her involvement with students, whether it is traveling with the school band to Virginia Beach, Va., for a recent competition or taking students in sports teams or clubs to a Bob Evans Restaurant to celebrate their successes.

With Lewis' support, Atholton's SGA was able to launch several events this year, including a winter pep rally and a "powder puff" football game - where female students play football and male students cheer from the sidelines.

"I seriously think she's the main reason why Atholton is considered one of the best high schools in the county," said Brett Morales, 16, a junior and president of the student government. Morales wrote one of the recommendation letters for the extensive nomination application.

Lewis, who lives in Ellicott City with her husband, never aspired to be a principal, though the New Jersey native said she had known she wanted to be a teacher since fourth grade, when she was inspired by her teacher.

First teaching job

While at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Lewis got a job teaching elementary school special education, although she initially wanted to work with high school students. She ended up staying in the special-education field for nearly 25 of what has turned into a 36-year career so far.

"I absolutely loved the kids," she said.

Lewis started in Howard County in 1975, first as a classroom teacher at Laurel Woods Elementary School in Laurel before moving to the central office as a special-education resource teacher and supervisor two years later.

In that role, Lewis found appropriate placements for severely disabled children.

Yearning to return

But after years working with students in tough situations, Lewis said she yearned to go back to a school, or as she put it, "I wanted to get back to the kids."

So in 1993, Lewis found herself at Mount Hebron High School as an assistant principal. Two years later, she was assigned to Atholton in the same capacity.

In her first year there, Lewis faced a personal tragedy when her son, Jeff, 24, died in an automobile accident. (Both he and her older daughter, Patricia, graduated from Centennial High School.)

"All I know is that my husband and I are in the emotional and physical shape we are because of the school," she said. "They were our support. This school will never understand how much they meant to us at that point."

Named principal in 1998

Named Atholton's principal in 1998, Lewis said her approach is to remain visible and support the school's staff and students and not get bogged down by paperwork or negative aspects of the job, such as disciplining students.

"You have an excellent, competent staff, and you let them do their thing," Lewis said. "If someone comes up with an idea that's reasonable, you go with it. You're only as good as your weakest link."

She added, "You've got to get out of the office and see the kids doing well. Any kid not doing well, there is a reason. You have to find a reason for it."

Robbie Adkins, Lewis' secretary, said students value that matter-of-fact mentality - if not right away, at least after some reflection.

One case in point: A former student recently wrote a letter to Lewis, apologizing for his behavior, as well as thanking the principal for her attention and help, Adkins said.

"She's real," Adkins said. "What you see is what you get. Kids know that, and they appreciate it."

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