Newkirk succeeds, as a boss and a friend

June 02, 2003|BY BOB MAGINNIS

When Pam Michael was named Washington County's Public School Teacher of the Year, she gave much of the credit for her success to Jim Newkirk, the supervisor of elementary reading and social studies.

It was the second time in three years that Newkirk has drawn such praise. When asked who her mentor was in a December 2001 interview, Betsy Little, supervisor of elementary mathematics and science, named Newkirk.

So who is this guy and why does he inspire such devotion? For those I've interviewed who've worked with him, he's a genuinely nice person, who'll do everything possible to help those he works with succeed. And when it comes to performance, this is one nice guy who doesn't finish last.

After the Washington County School Board got a devastating report in 1997 from an organization that specialized in auditing the effectiveness of school systems, a 100-member group of businesspeople and educators co-chaired by Michael G. Callas and Theresa Flak, assistant superintendent for instruction, began work on changing the system.


Part of that change involved launching a countywide literacy initiative in the 1998-99 school year. Reading teachers were placed in each of the county's 25 elementary schools and tests were designed to measure students' progress.

By 2000, elementary school students had gone from a Maryland School Performance Assessment Program statewide ranking in the teens to sixth for third graders and a tie for fifth for fifth graders.

In 2001, then-School Board member Doris Nipps said that when the program began, members resolved that if it didn't produce improvement in three years, they'd "pull the plug" on it.

They didn't have to. In 2001, statistics showed that for the four years previous, elementary students' reading skills had improved each year. Characteristically, Newkirk credited the classroom teachers for the success.

One of those teachers is Melissa Williams, a reading improvement/library media specialists at Cascade Elementary School.

"I've known Jim since my first day of employment in 1974 at Clear Spring Middle. He was one of the first people to welcome me and offer me assistance," Williams said.

"At the time Jim became supervisor of reading, language arts and social studies, we had just undergone a curriculum audit and one of the things found lacking was the area of assessment," Williams said.

Assessments are tests used to measure student progress, William said. Newkirk and his group set about crafting new measures of how well or poorly students were reading.

They succeeded so well, Williams said, that they influenced the development of similar tests in other systems around the state.

"It was cutting edge," she said.

The job of the reading-improvement teachers was to find the best ways to improve students' reading skills and pass them on to classroom teachers, Williams said.

"The lessons that reading improvement teachers were modeling for classroom teachers really improved scores," she said, adding that Newkirk saw to it that teachers had opportunities to attend conferences and workshops so they could bring back good ideas and share them.

Williams also said that Newkirk revived the Washington County Reading Council, which among other things has raised funds to give the parents of every newborn child a book and information about the benefits of reading to children.

For Mary Newby, a reading improvement teacher at Eastern Elementary, Newkirk was the one always finding ways to do more with less, or wringing a few extra dollars out of a budget to fund a workshop, a motivational speaker or some new textbooks.

"He was very beneficial to raising reading scores in our county. He instituted benchmarks for each student every quarter. It takes 30 to 45 minutes assess every child. He started that in our county," she said.

In addition to that, Newby said that Newkirk had a way of encouraging and motivating teachers by creating a network and the feeling that they were all on the same team and working together.

"Jim has not only been our supervisor, but our friend as well," she said.

But next year Newkirk's status will change, as the system moves him to the principal's post at Pangborn Elementary School, where School Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said his experience will be a benefit.

"He's a person with high energy and we need people with high energy as principals," Morgan said.

Whether this is a change Newkirk sought or welcomed, I don't know. I purposely didn't call him for this column because it I felt it would put him in an awkward position to ask him to react to others' words of praise. It is enough, based on what they've said and the system's progress during his tenure, to acknowledge that their praise is well-deserved.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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