Solley Elementary principal receives state honor

He is named a National Distinguished Principal

May 26, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

The announcement blared loud and clear over the public address system at Solley Elementary School's May Day Festival on Wednesday: Line up for a chance to throw a pie at Principal Robert Wagner. Students rushed over to the pie-in-the-face stand as if they were flocking to an ice cream truck. Wagner, donning goggles and a shower cap, poked his head out of a box and stared at the throng of youngsters and parents before him.

Then the educator named this year's National Distinguished Principal by the Maryland branch of the National Association of Elementary School Principals said in a joking voice to the kids, "Remember, I know you," and braced himself as the whipped-topping pie shells flew.

Wagner believes in building lasting ties with students, parents, teachers and staff, even if it means remaining motionless while dessert is being hurled at his face. He also assembles puzzles with students and works alongside teachers to develop ways to help Solley youngsters succeed.

Wagner, who has served as principal of the Anne Arundel County school since 2004, is among 62 principals nationwide from both public and private schools to be honored. NAESP — a group that includes middle school principals as well — launched the National Distinguished Principal program in 1984, recognizing principals who set high standards of learning and achievement in their schools.

"It's certainly an honor and a privilege to represent the principals in Maryland in this award," said Wagner, saying that the teachers and colleagues he's worked with have been "very influential in making me a better educator."

Wagner will be honored with other distinguished principal honorees this fall in Washington, where he has advocated on behalf of principals to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

But on Wednesday, he was a bulls-eye for those who did their best to hit him with pie filling. Among those who did: Solley fifth-grader Connor Tracey, who grazed Wagner on the shoulder. Asked what it's like to hurl a pie at your principal, Connor replied, "It's like running up and smacking your little sister after she really got you upset."

Connor then tossed around kind words about his principal. "He's got very fair rules," said Connor. "He's the kind of principal you'd want to have very single year."

Regina Mattern, whose fifth-grade son, Cian, also stood in line to throw a pie at Wagner, agreed. "He's a good sport, as you can see," she said. "As a principal, he's very caring."

For Wagner, the distinguished principal honor comes after 20 years of serving as a principal; he has also been principal at Eastport, Brock Bridge and Odenton elementary schools.

"My term as principal at my first school was five years, and if you were to have asked me at that point how I was doing, I would have said very well," said Wagner, "because I had set up a lot of programs. I made the connection with parents. I had management of the school down pat. But looking back now, I realize that the complexity of the position is much more than that.

"It's really about building your academic relationships with your staff as well as your students, as well as personal relationships," said Wagner. "Much of the business here is how do we improve test scores, but without taking that extra time to really get to know people. That extra time makes a big difference.

"How people see you not just as a principal, but a person, has an impact. That emotional piece is crucial. Once people know that you care they will go beyond what you ask them."

In addition to having pies hurled at him, Wagner takes time to dine with students. He says that each week the school recognizes student achievement by selecting two students from each class to have lunch with Wagner or another administrator. The group then works on puzzles and brain teasers.

"It's a positive opportunity for us to get to know the kids and for the kids to get to know us," Wagner said.

In an effort to increase parent and student participation at evening school events, Solley has awarded a display banner to the two classes with the highest participation. The school said in February that it doubled the number of attendees to Science Night (a total of 165) from last year. That same month the Solley Dance Company debuted at the Anne Arundel County Dance Festival.

Wagner began his career as an elementary and special education teacher but said he ultimately became a principal because an administrator recognized his people skills.

"The fact that someone is recognized to represent others in a profession means that the profession itself gets recognition," said Wagner. "I care about all of those principals out there that do their best every day."

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