For nearly a decade, Rose Tasker has strived to improve the performance of Van Bokkelen Elementary School on state exams despite the problems its students face, including poverty and frequent family moves.
The Severn school has made significant gains under Tasker's leadership, but the retiring principal recently got some bad news: Van Bokkelen failed to meet two of the standards in reading and math set by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
It might seem a tough way to say goodbye for Tasker, who was singled out earlier this month by Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith for creating a strong foundation at Van Bokkelen.
But Tasker, who is leaving in a few days after 36 years with the county schools, insists that she is not upset.
"I know that I'm leaving it better than I found it," Tasker said. "And that's important to me."
Some say Tasker's experience illustrates the challenges that even the most highly regarded educators face in raising test scores at struggling schools. Fifty-eight other schools statewide face restructuring, similar to that at Van Bokkelen.
"When a school has a long history of low performance, the turnaround takes a great deal of effort and very focused attention," Smith said, adding that it would take time to change.
Anne Arundel school officials plan to appeal the requirement to hire new staff at Van Bokkelen under a "restructuring" plan they had to develop last year after the school fell short of yearly goals on assessment tests. Tasker is helping write that appeal.
Van Bokkelen fell short because only four of 28 third- , fourth- and fifth-graders in special education achieved advanced or proficient levels on the state reading tests in March; six of them met the standard on the math test. School system officials are reviewing records to check whether a few children may have been wrongly classified.
"I was encouraged when I saw the scores in the aggregate," Tasker said. "Then, when I saw the individual student scores, I was more encouraged, because I saw how close they came to proficient."
Last year, the school exceeded state standards in all categories. In 2003, the percentage of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch was just one-tenth of a point below the state standard on the math exam.
The percentage of black fifth-graders who went on to middle school at the advanced or proficient level in math rose from 20 percent in 2003 to about 65 percent this year.
Tasker arrived at a struggling Van Bokkelen in February 1996. Restoring an orderly school climate and culture was a priority.
"The students felt that they were losing their school," Tasker said. She ended schoolwide recess and had teachers schedule individual times.
The school receives federal Title I funds because the vast majority of its children come from low-income families. Children's scores undergo increased scrutiny under No Child Left Behind based on categories such as race (the school is predominantly black), income level and special services such as free lunch.
Van Bokkelen also has a highly transient student population.
But Tasker, a former Title I specialist, had expertise that matched Van Bokkelen's needs. Then-Superintendent Carol S. Parham told her to treat it like a new school, so Tasker reinterviewed staff and hired new teachers during the summer.
"I was looking for people who wanted to be at Van Bokkelen and were willing to work in a challenging school," she said.
Among that crop was West Baltimore native Andrea Rose, who became a fifth-grade teacher. Rose, now principal of Annapolis' Hillsmere Elementary, will replace Tasker.
Tasker has "been like a mentor to me. ... It's wonderful to be able to follow her," Rose said.
To address Van Bokkelen's challenges, the school system started a summer program, which more than 100 children will begin in July. A similar number took advantage of supplemental tutoring for which they qualified under the No Child Left Behind law. She helped promote parental involvement through the Parents are Teachers Too program.
"I feel that I have worked with the staff and with the parents and brought the school to a level where the new principal will be able to come and take it ... to the next level," she said.
Tasker is looking forward to spending more time with her family. Her daughter, Ava, is an assistant principal at Bates Middle School.
For now, Tasker is packing up her office, though Andrea Rose will inherit Tasker's data wall with its "Go for the green" motto. Tasker shaded grade assessment boxes green when children scored well and promised to wear a green bowler hat if the school achieved its goals.
She said it was exciting to see the school make progress, but that she doesn't regret her decision to leave, because others will carry it forward.
"After we made [progress] last year, I decided this would be my last year here," she said. "School improvement is a process. It's not something final that you reach.