- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

Ms. Thompson's Marion P. Shadd Elementary School on East Capitol Street in Southeast, D.C. sits in a worn community, its faded brick exterior emblematic of threadbare surroundings. Mrs. Drown's Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Laurel, Md. stands on bucolic turf near mostly quiet roadways.
Yet their exemplary work in a profession with massive expectations and underwhelming pay unite them.
It also has earned them national recognition.
They were selected as two of 64 elementary and middle school principals nationwide to earn the 2001 National Distinguished Principals honor by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).
At a time when fewer educators see the benefit of taking on a principal's position, Ms. Thompson and Mrs. Drown are throwing themselves into their work.
Ms. Thompson took the reins of her school of about 260 students three years ago with only a little time to hire new staff or match the backlog of 118 special-education students with the proper services.
"This was known as the most difficult school in D.C.," Ms. Thompson says, citing discipline problems, chaotic student records and a dilapidated building.
"I had never seen anything like it. It was quite a challenge," she says.
She hired a new staff, helped shore up the building both structurally and aesthetically by refurbishing its crumbling window structures, and rearranged student records.
She credits her handpicked young staff, who stayed on despite the initial hard times.
"They stayed the course. They didn't leave," she says.
She adds that she realized their work had had an impact during a spring assembly at the end of her first year as principal.
"They came into the auditorium and sat quietly," she says of her young charges. "When we first came, they couldn't sit quietly. They'd chase each other around the chairs."
Ms. Thompson understands jobs like hers can be a tough sell to some.
"They see the job as undoable," she says of a few of her peers.
Working in poorer communities adds its own complications, from teachers going to the parking lot to find their cars have been stolen to encountering children ill-equipped for learning.
"They come to us with prenatal exposure," Ms. Thompson says of some students whose mothers abused drugs, which led to their learning disorders. "They can't process information."
Shadd first-grade teacher Carmen Shepherd says part of Ms. Thompson's effectiveness is her presence in the hallways.
"She's been very visible. She greets the students in the morning," Mrs. Shepherd says.
Ms. Thompson also provides unwavering support to her staffers, Mrs. Shepherd says. "It's good to know you have a principal who stands behind you."
Adding to any principal's grief is the generally acknowledged low pay structure.
According to the NAESP, the national average salary of elementary school principals is $72,587. In the mid-Atlantic region Delaware, the District, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania the average principal salary is slightly higher, about $83,000.
In some cases, where veteran teachers work under neophyte principals, the former out-earn the latter.

Mrs. Drown's workload didn't include significant discipline problems or renovation woes. She did, however, have challenges of her own.
Mrs. Drown, tall and with a precise, yet comforting manner, had to merge the existing Laurel Woods and Forest Ridge elementary school populations four years ago into the new Gorman Crossing school.
She says she hired her own staff, built the Parent Teacher Association at Gorman "from the ground up" and had a hand in everything down to the choice of paint colors within the school.
The job also required her to look within her staff for help.
"Being a leader means you find other people with leadership qualities and nurture them. You can't do it yourself," she says.
Karen Harvie, former PTA president for Gorman Crossing, says Mrs. Drown "is the reason the transition went so smoothly" in combining the two schools.
"She has the best people skills I've ever seen," says Mrs. Harvie, who adds that the principal can break down intricate educational matters into brief, digestible morsels for parents.
Despite her workload and efficient manner, Mrs. Harvie says, Mrs. Drown always makes time for parents.
"She never seems to be working," she says, marveling at Mrs. Drown's openness. "Her door is always open."
Fifth-grade teacher Glenn Reid says Mrs. Drown met with students before the two schools combined to get their opinions on everything from school colors to the school's team mascots.
"It built a real feeling of community between the two schools," Mr. Reid says.

The difficulties facing today's principals aren't just a local issue.
Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the Quakertown School District in Bucks County, Pa., recalls a recent gathering of 25 school districts in southeastern Pennsylvania. The first topic to come up was how to attract and keep qualified principals.
Being a principal today means not only running the school, Mr. Scanlon says, but also appearing in court to attend custody hearings and provide testimony on occasional bus accidents and other problems.
Still, he says, principals are more concerned with control over their work places than the salaries they take home.
"I don't think the compensation is the be-all, end-all," says Mr. Scanlon, whose district is 30 miles north of Philadelphia.
Both Ms. Thompson and Mrs. Drown speak of being "instructional leaders" in their buildings, an educational catchphrase that means somone who analyzes data, tinkers with curriculums and identifies and addresses educational weaknesses.
It's a role their many other duties don't always allow them to perform.
"All of us are expected to be instructional leaders," Ms. Thompson says. "That's great, but the food still has to be served in the cafeteria; the halls have to be cleaned."

Reginald Felton, director of federal relations with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, says today's would-be principals often lack the proper experience to tackle their tasks.
Principals in larger districts often are forced into duty without serving long terms in lesser roles where they can hone their abilities.
The challenges aren't just pragmatic.
"Education was never so politicized as it is now," he says. School funding struggles can enmesh educational matters in political wrangling.
School districts can improve matters by offering better incentive packages to principals, from sabbaticals to higher pay to the chance to dabble in the private sector, he says.
"Local communities have to be more creative with their packaging," he says.
Mrs. Drown would like to see more schools hire assistant principals, or even managers, who can oversee some of the basic school operations, such as overseeing cafeteria services and bus routes.
Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, says there's "no question there's a growing shortage of qualified people for principalships."
"The principal position has really changed over the last decade or so," he says. "Far more responsibility is heaped on their shoulders."
Part of that pressure stems from standardized testing, which can translate into diminished federal and state funding if certain grades aren't met.
Change is afoot, though. Mr. Ferrandino says many districts are actively identifying teachers with leadership potential and are steering them into programs to nurture the needed skills.

Through all the hard work and grueling night meetings, the children remain enough motivation for Mrs. Drown.
"I love what I do. When you're having a bad day, a child will say something funny or say you look pretty," Mrs. Drown says.
"I can hardly talk about it without crying," says Ms. Thompson, her professional veneer softening.
"The rewards come when I see them smiling or laughing," Ms. Thompson says. "I just love the kids, and they know it. I'll hug 'em, wear 'em out."
The National Distinguished Principals program began in 1984. NAESP represents 28,500 elementary and middle schools nationwide.


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