- The Washington Times - Monday, November 5, 2001

On the door outside the cool blue office of Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham is a map of the continental United States with a long yellow line running across it from San Diego to Annapolis.
The line marks the route Mrs. Parham and colleagues drove in a rental van, going day and night 48 hours straight, to get back from a conference after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, declaring an emergency, had abruptly closed the schools. Within an hour of arriving home, Mrs. Parham had showered, dressed and was in her office, having worked the phones steadily on business matters along the way.
Such determination is typical of the woman who, eight years ago, was elected the county's first female schools chief, becoming one of few black women in the nation to head a major school system. With 75,000 students, 10,000 employees and 140 buildings (including 118 schools), Anne Arundel has the fifth-largest public school system in Maryland and the 43rd largest in the nation. By nearly all accounts, the system was in turmoil when Mrs. Parham was named superintendent. Three men had held the post in the six preceding years.
Mrs. Parham could be re-elected for a third four-year term, so it was a surprise when she announced her resignation in June, effective at the end of the year, to become the first professor of practice at the University of Maryland's College of Education.

The rise to her present post was a high-trajectory move. After many years as a teacher in Baltimore and Howard County public schools and a short time as the Anne Arundel school system's director of personnel, she became interim superintendent and served in that capacity for a year before taking over the top job.
"I almost felt that no one really expected very much from me," she says. "I could have been perceived as just a place holder until they could pick somebody else . In my mind, I just said if I was superintendent for 30 days, or 30 seconds, I was going to do the job."
The teacher in her never has left, she says. "Skills have sustained me. My father gave me two fundamental principles of teaching. One, you cannot teach in disorder. Two, your work will be your salvation. You have to establish order, but it won't stay there if you don't provide an agenda of work for people."
An unflappable megawatt personality and no-nonsense operating style made her a natural. She soon had a reputation as someone who wasn't afraid to make hard decisions, but some of those decisions upset constituents to the point of causing her to fear for her life.
For a period last year, she lived with police protection and was the object of physical, racial and sexual threats after she announced a temporary plan that involved busing elementary school students from a largely white district in the southern end of the county to a largely black Annapolis middle school during building renovations. She did it, she says, because she felt it was the most efficient use of facilities and would benefit all concerned. (The situation still is not resolved; an appeal is pending.)
A tall woman with long, brown, wavy hair, Mrs. Parham, 52, makes a commanding figure as she strides purposefully through the halls of the three-story clay brick administration building on Riva Road in Annapolis. Walls were put up around her office only after the death threats. She has an open-door policy for the most part and seldom, if ever, uses e-mail, preferring to talk in person or on the phone.
She occasionally mentors students, as well, "not as a friend but because sometimes children will take a message from someone else that they won't take from their parents. It is so hard to raise children even when you have both parents. You need other people reinforcing them."
It's not unusual for her to get in her car and go see for herself what is going on.
"People tell me things, concerns about a particular school, or management issues. The first time I might file it. Then I might ask some questions and think I need to have a conversation. There is a very human dimension to this job if you make it your choice. That has been my choice." She calls it "heart power."
One of her innovations was establishing the position of what she calls "a human relations specialist" to deal with individual cases. "So many of the issues center around communication, so that by the time the person gets to me, they are furious because they may have been passed around. A lot of situations we have are when parents call up, and the first words out of their mouth are 'I'm going to call my lawyer. I'm going to sue you. I'm going to call the media.'"
Her manner is informal a lot of easygoing charm and humor but associates address her, in public anyway, as "Dr. Parham." A graduate of the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, she has a master's degree in counseling and a doctorate in education and is a past president of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland. She earns $140,000 annually and lives a short drive away from the office with her businessman husband, Bill, who works for Price Waterhouse. Their daughter is a teacher, their son a master's degree student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

That's all the more reason why her decision to resign came as a surprise. It freed her, in a way, however. Not long after her announcement, she rejoined a local fitness club, having not had time to take advantage of the facility before. She also had been a member of the board of Baltimore's Center Stage but had had to drop out because of time constraints.
Like many others among the more than 14,000 school superintendents around the country who are quitting in record numbers in spite of six-figure salaries, she found that a job she calls "more than 24-seven," a job she clearly likes, wasn't worth the sacrifices involved. In short, she wants her life back.
"If you are giving everything you can, right down to your emotional core, then there is a point at which you need to step back and rejuvenate. Time to take another growth step," she says.
Maybe then not so many people will approach her with "issues" when she goes shopping at the supermarket even when disguised in a hat and dark glasses. Being a very hands-on woman, she'll take down a phone number and do the follow-up later.
As it is, she has stayed well beyond the average 21/2 to three years a superintendent stays in one place, running systems that make them simultaneously sounding boards and whipping boys, beholden to (in Mrs. Parham's case) an eight-member board of education and increasing pressures from state and federal officials to prove student academic achievement strictly by test scores pressures she feels are, to some degree, unfair.
She blames such pressures in part on competitive values in American society and is sympathetic, to a point. What worries her is "dealing with a public that doesn't give us a chance to build on our knowledge. Maybe [improvement] didn't show up in fifth-grade test scores, but you have built a capacity in this child so he not only stays in school, but does well something we won't know until maybe six years later."
It's not that she isn't shown any appreciation. She says her inner resources are bolstered by a spiritual life and that a local pastor will phone her in the middle of the day to tell her he's praying for her. Her sun-filled office has flowers and letters sent as tokens of thanks for deeds and favors rendered. Most prominently on display, however, is the slogan resting on an easel in full view of anyone entering the room:
"Trust your guts. The only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision."
She trusts more than her guts. Although she is the person of last resort on such matters as teacher firings and replacements, school budgets, safety issues and early closing times, she relies a great deal by necessity on a loyal staff. The system's lawyer, Cynthia Shilling, a former teacher, credits her boss with "making decisions and sticking by them. That isn't always easy to do in such a high-profile position. She does her job so well, and she is a good mother."
"It's a love-in. I'm not ashamed to say that," volunteers public information officer Jane Beckett, who has worked under at least four county school superintendents.
Even when dressed for business in a smartly tailored brown suit and high heels, Mrs. Parham never wears a watch ("watches go dead on me") and is the only one in a Cabinet meeting who doesn't carry pen or pencil. Her schedule is roughed out each day ahead of time, but school board members feel free to drop by, and, inevitably, surprises occur that throw plans out the window.
One recent afternoon, when Baltimore Mayor Michael O'Malley had issued an alert because of the anthrax scare, she instantly marshaled her troops to feel out what, if any, action she should take in response. There was bound to be a reaction from parents whose children were in county schools near the city line. A private school called her office to check on her decision.
"They don't want to go to school with me, but they want me to make the decisions," she says with a laugh.


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