Principals Honored for Taking Their Schools Ahead

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006

It was in sixth grade, after a teacher called him stupid, that Nelson McLeod realized the influence a teacher can exert on a student and resolved that he would one day teach.

McLeod, 42, principal of Newport Mill Middle School in Kensington, is a 2006 winner of the Distinguished Educational Leadership Award from The Washington Post. In Frederick County, Steve Lockard, principal at Tuscarora Elementary School, also received the award.

Under McLeod's leadership, teachers at Newport Mill have made strides in closing the racial achievement gap. The share of black students showing proficiency in math on the statewide Maryland School Assessment, for example, has nearly doubled to 67 percent in the past three years, just behind the 71 percent proficiency rate for the school as a whole. Sixty-eight percent of black eighth-graders at Newport Mill take high school math, compared with 44 percent of black eighth-graders in the county school system as a whole.

McLeod has always wanted to work in a middle school, and that makes him something of a rarity. Most teachers enter public education intent on teaching in the elementary or high school grades, rather than in the hormonally challenged middle grades.

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., McLeod bloomed as a smart but quiet student; a stutter made him particularly reluctant to read aloud in class. Called upon to read one day in Junior High School 231, McLeod "just had a block, and I shut down."

The teacher who verbally attacked him that day became a friend and mentor later in life. McLeod was the first in his family to finish college, earning a bachelor's in education at Virginia Union University and a master's at Iowa State.

McLeod started as a special education teacher at Wood Middle School in Rockville. After three years he moved into regular education, hoping to have a broader impact on students. He worked briefly in personnel before ascending to administration as assistant principal of Takoma Park Middle School in the late 1990s. Three years later, he earned his first principalship at the reopening of Newport Mill, a campus that had been rebuilt.

A sensitive and empathetic administrator, McLeod has devoted entire school days to teaching students how to "be an ally rather than a bully," and he knows most of his students by name. They sometimes call him "Dad."

McLeod sends home progress reports tailored to individual students every three weeks, and he sends out a weekly recorded phone message, all by way of keeping families up to date.

He said his school's success with a high-poverty population -- nearly half the students qualify for federal meal subsidies -- is about "believing in them. I'm not being passe about that. It's believing the kids can do it."

Steve Lockard is a teacher's principal. He regards the staff at Tuscarora Elementary as equal partners in making tough decisions. He helps dab paint on the ball court and hand out juice boxes in the cafeteria. When he took a phone call on a recent afternoon, it was just after fixing the ice machine in the teachers' lounge.

Those who nominated Lockard for the honor were unanimous in praising his people skills. Patient, respectful and supportive, he is "exactly the kind of person you hope will be running your child's school," wrote Jennifer Kinsey, the school PTA president.

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