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Ohanian Comment: From the headline to the last period, this is a smug, ugly story.

The effective leadership characteristics that keep CEOs of corporations on the cutting edge are powerful elements to implement in the school setting. Like Haliburton?

I don't doubt Parke Land's sincerity, but I am heavily pained by the CEO malarky. I'd like to be a fly on the wall during the leadership training. I'd also like to see what reading program they're using.

by Laura McCandlish

RICHMOND -- Parke Land, the former principal of Lafayette High School in James City, devoted 31 years to Williamsburg-James City County public schools. But rather than remain in this comfortable, suburban school system, easing toward retirement, Land sought a challenge.

He moved to Richmond to take over as principal of Boushall Middle School. Boushall has constantly failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind law, and the school's failure rate in reading is nearly 50 percent. Most students qualify for the federal free lunch program and some live in the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Richmond, such as the Gilpin Court housing project.

"I truly believe if we don't solve the problems of our inner-city schools, our democracy is going to suffer," Land said in a segment that featured him on "The Merrow Report." The segment aired on public television's "NewsHour" this week.

Land is one of 10 turnaround specialists - experienced principals who are recruited and then trained to think like CEOs. The outcome: They fix failing schools. The program is a joint venture of the business and education schools at the University of Virginia and the state education department.

The program began in the summer of 2004 under legislation sponsored by Del. Phillip A. Hamilton, R-Newport News, and was signed into law by Gov. Mark R. Warner.

The principals undergo summer training at U.Va. before beginning a three-year tenure at their new schools. Their progress is charted by formal assessments given to their students every nine weeks.

"The Merrow Report," which produces documentaries on public school reform, will shadow Land throughout this school year as he attempts to instill discipline and improve attendance at Boushall Middle School. His other goals are to raise reading and math scores with remedial tutoring built into the school day.

"The number one problem you will hear from turnaround principals is: 'My children can't read,' " said Julie Walker, the former principal of James Blair Middle School in Williamsburg. Walker now coaches those principals working in schools across Virginia.

"It doesn't matter if it's elementary, middle or high school. If you can't read, Lord knows, you can't take the test."

Land is not the only turnaround specialist from the Peninsula.

Catherine Thomas, the former principal of Tyler Elementary in Hampton, dramatically raised reading test scores at Berkeley Elementary School in Spotsylvania County last year. When Thomas arrived in the summer of 2004, only 33 percent of the school's students had passed the third-grade Standards of Learning test in reading. One year later, 60 percent of third-graders passed.

In the spring of 2006, she is aiming for a 90 percent pass rate.

"We launched a huge reading initiative in the county to get our students up to grade level," Thomas said. "We also staggered the schedule of our reading blocks, so our support folks could spread out to work with more kids."

She added: "When you walk the halls this year, they come alive with the kids' reading and writing work. Students are taking ownership of their learning."

In fact, of the 10 schools that received turnaround specialist principals during the 2004-2005 school year, seven made AYP this year, while almost all the schools had failed to in previous years.

Principals like Land and Thomas often make great personal sacrifices when they move to lower-performing schools. Though the "turnaround specialist" program offers them a yearly bonus of up to $13,000, and $50 per pupil, if they transform their schools, the principals often take pay cuts by moving to under-funded districts.

Thomas lives in Spotsylvania during the week and commutes back home to her family in Yorktown on weekends.

She is now convinced that a business model can really improve the leadership and culture of a school.

"Being a leader in the true essence of the word was a concept I'd never been trained in," Thomas said.

"The effective leadership characteristics that keep CEOs of corporations on the cutting edge are powerful elements to implement in the school setting," she said. "It's not a factory or assembly line approach, but about aligning resources to be an effective leader."

— Laura McCandlish
Daily Press


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