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Turning things around

Principal Stiles says rebounding scores will be proof of production

Principal Stiles says rebounding scores will be proof of production

August 14, 2005|By KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

Bester Elementary School's new principal is uncomfortable with comparisons to Chrysler Corp.'s savior Lee Iacocca.

But like Iacocca, Kathy Stiles is charged with turning things around, and rebounding scores will be proof of production.

Stiles, who oversaw improvement during two years at Eastern Elementary School, now confronts the same challenge - poor student performance - at a different school.

"That's probably why I was put here, because I'm always going for the underdog," Stiles said.

A Habitat for Humanity volunteer and former social worker, Stiles, 44, said she believes the high poverty level at the county's poorest school has driven down student scores in the part of town where she grew up.

Whether students grow up homeless or with parents in jail, Stiles said, "in this building, we are here to make sure we provide everything they need to succeed."

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Only about 60 percent of Bester's 560 students passed their 2005 Maryland School Assessments.

For Stiles, that's not good enough.

"If you're saying 60 percent are making it, that's a sin because 40 percent did not," Stiles said.

The county's poorest school - almost 80 percent of Bester students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches - once shared test scores' bottom rungs with Eastern. But, Eastern improved during Stiles' two-year tenure there, and school staff members believe they will see the same results at Bester.

"She's kind of become our Lee Iacocca. She's kind of our turnaround agent," Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said during an interview earlier this summer.

Iaccoca is credited with saving Chrysler from bankruptcy.

Fewer than half of Eastern's students passed the state's reading test, and more than 45 percent of students failed the state's math test when it was administered in spring 2003.

That year, Stiles was finishing up a three-year term as principal at Greenbrier Elementary School, where high scores are standard.

According to Stiles, Eastern's test scores plummeted after Paramount Elementary School, which was being remodeled, reopened. Paramount students left Eastern, where they temporarily attended school, and scores fell, Stiles said.

That's when she stepped in.

"I really liked taking a challenge. I was tired of hearing people saying the students at Eastern couldn't do it," Stiles said.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, about 80 percent of Eastern students in grades 3, 4 and 5 passed the 2005 tests.

Like Bester, Eastern has a poverty rate that's much higher than the county average and more than double the rates of Paramount and Greenbrier. Almost 48 percent of Eastern students last year qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Stiles said children in high-poverty areas frequently grow up in unstable environments where survival takes priority over achievement. Parents who want to help often don't know how.

"My goal is to be able to help these parents. I mean, some of them feel hopeless," Stiles said.

Lighthouse knickknacks decorate Stiles' new office. Most came from former students and their parents, with whom she formed an attachment, she said.

"Here's what I'll miss about Eastern: I had about 20 kids call me mom," Stiles said.

Stiles said she also will miss working with the staff at Eastern, where restructuring and additional training sessions created a "professional learning environment." Seeing familiar faces won't be a problem - four teachers, including Tina Swindell, and an instructional assistant, have followed Stiles to Bester.

"One lady I used to work with, she said, 'I don't care where Kathy goes, you go with her to the ends of the earth,' and I was like, 'I'm with you there,'" Swindell said.

Swindell, who is in her eighth year as a teacher, worked with Stiles at both Eastern and Greenbrier. The principal has a gift for dealing with people, Swindell said.

"It's just phenomenal, she just connects with the kids. It's crazy," Swindell said.

Instructional assistant Sherri Lantz bounced from school to school as funding dried up and positions were cut. Now entering her fifth year as a classroom aide, Lantz finally made one move on her own - she, too, followed Stiles from Eastern to Bester.

"I just think she has a great attitude, and she'll be good for the job. She's good with the kids, and she's good with the staff," Lantz said.

Although students won't begin classes until Aug. 24, teachers displayed all the exuberance of the first day of school when they met in a training session last month.

Teachers repeated one theme: "Every child can learn." That belief fuels Stiles' efforts. "I'm excited - the adrenaline's going," Stiles said. She said she's ready for the school year to begin. "I do believe that these students can do it, just like a kid that's at Greenbrier or Paramount," Stiles said.

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