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Teacher of the Year

July 01, 1999

Carol Corwell-Martin, Washington County's Teacher of the Year for 1998 and curriculum coordinator of Salem Avenue Elementary School, named this past May as a national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, will leave the local school system this week, at least temporarily.

Corwell-Martin has agreed to join the Maryland Department of Education for a three-year assignment in the Compensatory Education Division, where she'll be working to help improve school systems in the state's western counties. Part of her assignment will be reviewing school systems' plans for funds from Title I, a federal program designed to provide extra help for children from low-income families.

Creative use of Title I money was a key factor in Salem Avenue's success. Corwell-Martin explained that faculty members hired with Title I cash (like the two reading teachers at Salem Avenue) are normally supposed to work only with those children who get free or reduced-price lunches, by pulling them out of their regular classes.

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But if more than 50 percent of the students get those free and reduced-price lunches, Title I funds can be spent school-wide. At Salem, Corwell-Martin explained, the program was used to reduce class sizes. Two reading teachers who had only been able to help disadvantaged students were converted to regular classroom teachers, helping to reduce class size school-wide.

After 17 years teaching in the local system, Corwell-Martin's decision to leave the classroom might surprise some, but the seeds of this new direction were planted years ago, during Gov. Parris Glendening's first campaign here.

Glendening was visiting the Washington County Teachers' Association headquarters when Corwell-Martin approached him about what she felt were problems with the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program - the so-called "report card" testing program for public schools across the state.

He promised some follow-up, but time went by and nothing happened, she said, so when she saw him at another reception, she reminded him of their earlier conversation. Glendening then introduced her to State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, who not only didn't blow her off, but got her involved a committee reviewing test materials.

Earlier this year, MDE announced it was looking at a plan that would recruit so-called "master teachers" to travel to schools around the state as coaches and mentors. Is that what you're going to do?

"I don't think that's going to be part of the job," she said, adding that state officials told her that MDE needs the expertise of teachers who've been involved in successful programs across the state.

What sort of expertise are they seeking?

Corwell-Martin explained that when state officials tell principals they need to improve the way their schools teach writing, for example, the principals want specific recommendations on programs and materials from people who've actually used them in the classroom.

"My sense is that they're really interested in some of my ideas," she said.

Is it tough to leave Salem Avenue and the Washington County system after spending so much time here?

"Yes it was very difficult to leave that school. It feels like home away from home. Fortunately, I had a long time to think about it," she said, adding that "I'm just naive enough, maybe dumb enough, to think I can make a difference."

Was it easier to go knowing that Salem Avenue's principal, Vincent Spong, is retiring?

That was a factor, she said, because they had worked closely together for 14 years, and it seemed like another sign that maybe it was time to take her educational career in another direction.

"It just sort of seemed like this was meant to be," she said.

What would you like to tell those students and parents you've worked with over the years?

"Thanks for taking me into your family. I was a Clear Spring girl who became a West End girl. I hope I served them well. I'm not saying goodbye. I'm still going to be back visiting," she said.

Her reluctance to make a complete break with the local system means that she's becming what they call a "reimbursable employee" who could take a position in the system three years from now.

Corwell-Martin has written some op-ed pieces for The Herald-Mail and has spoken to our Editorial Page Citizens Advisory Group. She told the group that to increase parental involvement at Salem Avenue, she and other teachers actually visited some students' homes. That seems a lot to ask of any teacher, but it also seems to have paid off, in the form of a school where everybody expects and celebrates success every day.

After hearing her presentation that night, I told her that if my own children were still in elementary school, I'd want them to have her as a teacher, but as someone concerned with the fate of everybody's children, I wished she would consider an administrative position to help recreate Salem Avenue's success county-wide. In three years, the local system will have another shot at putting this taleneted lady into its administrative lineup. Let's hope we don't let her get away again.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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