When Joan Valentine applied to be principal of Meade High School eight years ago, the school's teachers say, few administrators would have made the school their top choice. Teacher turnover was about 33 percent a year. Student fights were common, and academics lagged.
As Valentine prepares to retire as principal Wednesday after 30 years in education, she leaves the school on more solid footing. Meade was removed from the state's school improvement list this school year, discipline problems have been cut by more than half, and fewer teachers are choosing to leave, her staff said.
Valentine, who turned 56 Monday, said she has met the professional goals she set for herself and thinks it is time to move on and join her family in Greenwood, S.C.
"There was no real reason other than I wanted to go out on top," Valentine said. "It was just time."
Assistant Principal Daryl Kennedy, 37, will be acting principal until a replacement is found. Kennedy has applied to fill the position full time.
Valentine was candid in her advice to her successor: Have an open-door policy with the news media and outside officials, and work daily to tell the school's most positive stories. She said she has tried to be more open in the past two years.
"You need to focus on getting the positive points out there and make that as much a part of your day as checking e-mail," Valentine said. "I just wish I had done that earlier."
Valentine, who grew up in Beltsville, spent her career teaching in Anne Arundel County schools. Her siblings also are involved in education - Vickie Valentine is a physical education teacher at MacArthur Middle School; Barbara Valentine is in charge of hiring teachers for Harford County; Edinbur Valentine is a retired school security officer in South Carolina.
Valentine graduated from Morgan State University in 1974 with a double major in history and education. She earned her master's degree in special education at Bowie State University in 1985. The next year, she began teaching at Meade High School. She worked there for three years until she became an assistant principal and then principal at four schools.
Meade High School is on the Fort Meade Army base and has 1,700 students. When she returned in 1999 to become principal, she approached the issue of discipline head-on.
During her first year, she limited the number of open bathrooms to curb the number of assaults and trash fires. She created a leadership group of student representatives and got student input in developing a stricter lateness policy.
Reaching out to Army officials, Valentine called in military police officers to help with cafeteria duty, serve as hall monitors and sit in on ROTC classes. When base security tightened after the Sept. 11 attacks and the soldiers had less time to come to the school, Valentine obtained more funding from the county to hire hall monitors.
"She's excellent with discipline," said Shirley Young, chairwoman of the science department. "She's very concerned about students' welfare."
The extra help enabled Valentine to focus more on improving academics. Meade failed to meet its educational standards under the new No Child Left Behind standards in 2002.
The school joined the national High Schools That Work program, in which educators give critiques and suggestions for improvement.
One of the goals of the program is to challenge students, and Valentine said she did that by lifting the essay requirements for students to take Advanced Placement classes and instituting an open enrollment. She also increased the number of AP classes.
Teachers were given more freedom to try new ideas and programs, a change from the previous administration, teachers said.
"Before Valentine, there was a wall between teachers and principals," said Jeremy Weissenburger, chairman of the math department. "Joan was receptive to anything we could use with kids."
Teachers won a grant to be the county's pilot school for Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems, a program to reward students for good behavior.
Four years ago, Meade started Project Lead the Way, a pre-engineering program to prepare students for college work. Next year, students will be able to take college-level courses and become eligible for college credit.
Valentine also worked with Fort Meade officials to bring the International Baccalaureate college preparatory program to Meade as the school prepares for an influx of military families because of the base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC.
Maj. Otha Thornton transferred to Fort Meade from Germany two years ago and became president of the school's Parent Teacher and Student Association. He said he is pleased with the education his children have received. His 14-year-old son, Tre, just started the International Baccalaureate program. His 17-year-old daughter, Candice, scored in the top 10 percent of students taking the ACT.
Thornton said Valentine has done a difficult job well. "She's been very tough, but compassionate, and set up an environment where the school can get up and soar," Thornton said.
Kennedy, who knew Valentine's family socially before he came to Meade more than three years ago as assistant principal, said she taught him to get out of his office and chat with students between classes. When the school was under pressure to meet standards, Valentine reassured teachers and pushed everyone to work hard, Kennedy said.
Valentine said she wants to work part time in education and might try consulting in South Carolina. She hopes she leaves a positive legacy.
"Maybe everybody won't say, `I like Ms. Valentine,'" she said. "But they will say, `Ms. Valentine came in and brought in change at Meade High School."