- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2000

It's a crisis of sorts: Specialists in education say fewer and fewer people want to become school principals because, with the increased responsibilities and mounting pressure to raise student scores, for many the stress is just too much to handle.

Don't tell that to Connie E. Cowley, principal of Robert Brent Elementary on Capitol Hill. Ms. Cowley, a tall soft-spoken woman who by most measures is unusual in her eagerness to embrace a school leadership post, won't allow the word stress in her vocabulary.

"I don't feel burned out. I feel exhausted, and I feel tired but you can't get burned out if you enjoy what you are doing," the 52-year-old educator says after 13 months in a job that has her working 12 and 13 hours a day.

She claims that her worst burden is "having to attend a PTA meeting until 8 p.m. on Friday. You know they go on, and my battery needs to be charged, too. Friday, I would really like to leave by 5 or 5:30 p.m."

"Don't write that," she says with a laugh, adding, "We have a very supportive and active executive (PTA) board."

Brent PTA President Eva S. Conway calls Ms. Cowley "the greatest."

"A great organizer," Ms. Conway says. "Someone who puts the personal touch in there. She doesn't just brush you off."

Brent, a museum magnet school linked with the Smithsonian Institution, is far from the norm nationally as well. The Smithsonian tie is more than talk, Ms. Conway says; her daughter has even worked as a docent there, she says, doing a back-to-school teachers night out.

"The exhibit was on Washington," Ms. Conway says. "Trust me, they go physically to the Mall."

The program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, also is featured at Brent's sister school, the Stuart-Hobson Middle School at 410 E St. NE. Part of the program at Brent involves having each classroom what Ms. Cowley calls "galleries" in this context prepare exhibits interpreting the theme "The Journey of Success." Last year's topic was "Century of Change."

The Smithsonian, only one mile away on the Mall, makes a handy extension of Brent's physical plant which, while cramped, is inviting. Its playground is large and well-equipped. The school entrance at 330 D St. SE is graced by greenery and stands opposite a small neighborhood park maintained by the National Park Service. A colorful "Welcome" is painted on the entry wall next to a security guard who checks each visitor in. Green and white uniforms are the rule.

"The vision thing" is key to the school's philosophy, says Ms. Cowley, a graduate of D.C. public schools and an education major at Morgan State University. She has a master's degree in guidance and school counseling from the University of the District of Columbia and is a dissertation away from a doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She also taught science at the elementary level for nine years and served as an assistant principal in one of the several D.C. schools where she has worked.

Vision, she says, involves "object-based learning, experimental learning. Children learn best when they are given an opportunity to explore, explain and exhibit. The three Es, you see."

Mary Proctor of Capitol Hill, a former Brent parent, believes the school's approach set in motion under a previous principal and carried through by others and in particular science teacher Annette Spaulding were instrumental in influencing two of her children to major in aero-astroengineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I think my counseling skills have played an important role in allowing me to work well with my school community," Ms. Cowley says, speaking with measured cadence. A former guidance counselor at Brent, she was recommended for her present job by a principal who left to accept a job in the school system's administrative offices.

Smiling, she imitates herself at her most soothing best: "'Allow me to get back to you on that.' 'I'll research that.' 'I appreciate your support.' 'I'm sorry I missed your call.'"

"I don't think I'm being a facade," she says. "I'm being open. I'm being honest. You've got to be in touch with who you are you really do. Holding it all together is the notion that someone is watching over you.

"I think I am driven, by doing more than I did yesterday," she says. "I'm high strung. I maintain high standards for myself. Everything I've done, I've always wanted to be the very best … [But] I know when there are issues and things I can't put on my agenda."

Ninety-five percent of Brent's 320 pupils in grades pre-K through six come from outside the neighborhood including 100 students from Bolling Air Force Base. Parents are drawn in part by students' "proficient" ranking in reading and math skills on standardized tests. Teamwork is a stated philosophy among parents and teachers.

"Nothing is ever done in isolation here," Ms. Cowley says.

Some classrooms this year have fewer than 20 students, says to Teresa Hawkins, vice president for educational programs at nearby social service agency Friendship House, whose grandson attends the school. "That's unheard of in the District," she says.

Linkages, or partnerships, are the norm at Brent. The Greater Washington Urban League (whose president, Maudine Cooper, has a grandchild at Brent) recently helped sponsor an environmental education day in the park across the street. Bottled water companies participated and made a donation to the school.

There are connections to the Carnegie Institution, to the Lab School of Washington and to Everybody Wins, the one-on-one reading program for students grades two to six where outside adult mentors include U.S. senators.

The principal's daily routine involves dropping by classrooms. Children greet her warmly. On one impromptu visit recently, a young boy kissed her hand and two sixth-grade girls invited her to sample their bag of chips in the lunchroom. She is on the playground for the 3:30 p.m. dismissal (earlier Wednesdays, when afternoons are given over to teacher training.)

"I work best when there is order," she says.

"Collegial relationships" are also key, she says, when "teachers begin to really love each other, or at least respect one another."

"I see her as a strong leader," says fourth-grade teacher Jonathan Gustafson, who has a newly minted master's degree in education from George Washington University and is one of seven new teachers this year. But he isn't sure whether he ever would be interested in her job.

"The big shortage of principals is discouraging because it shows the pressures [on them] are real," he says.

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