2 Principals Are Honored For Transforming Schools

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

When Suzanne Maxey arrived as the new principal at Seneca Valley High School in 2003, students and teachers were struggling against a pervasive feeling that the Germantown campus had descended into mediocrity.

Today, Maxey is widely credited with having orchestrated a turnaround: improved test scores, higher staff morale, energized students and freshly painted hallways. She is the winner of the 2007 Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award for Montgomery County.

"In Suzanne's four years at Seneca Valley, she has transformed the school from a gloomy, moribund place to one of the most vibrant and well-respected schools in the region," wrote County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) in a letter supporting her nomination.

Maxey was hired away from Bowie High School in the Prince George's County school system, where student performance was strong. She arrived at Seneca Valley at a time when the new Maryland High School Assessments and a regionwide focus on expanding Advanced Placement participation were taking hold.

In the four years since, the school has improved in several areas. Passing rates have risen 10 to 20 points on each of the four HSA tests. AP testing has increased. SAT participation is up, and the school's ranking in the county for average SAT score has risen from 20th four years ago to 18th this year.

Maxey has worked to reconnect Seneca Valley students to their school by attending numerous sporting events, increasing school spirit exercises and holding monthly meetings with groups of students. At spirit events, she has kissed a pig and been dunked in a tank. She made hard hats for school employees bearing the logo Team Seneca. She arrived at one football game with boxes of noisemakers and cowbells.

Seneca Valley was "a school crying out for change and strong leadership," wrote Anita Weinstein, a parent. "She has made that change happen."

In Frederick County, the recipient of the Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award is Gerald DeGrange, principal of Brunswick Elementary School.

Last year, the school was visited by a top official of the Department of Education to recognize improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Faculty members and parents credit DeGrange's leadership for the changes at the school.

Since his arrival at the school in 2005, overall passing rates on the Maryland School Assessment have increased from 54 percent to 83 percent in reading and from 58 percent to 86 percent in math, helping remove the school from a state watch list for low performance.

DeGrange, 57, designed a spreadsheet-based program called Interventions to help teachers track test data for individual students, as well as how each student is progressing and what instructional help each receives.

Teachers and parents say DeGrange arrived at the school with a large repertoire of jokes, a collaborative style and a fondness for cooking chili and chicken corn soup for staff luncheons.

When employees said they wanted a cleaner building and stronger student discipline, he responded quickly. The new principal took a cloth and cleaner and explored the building himself. He set up a new student behavior system that stresses recognition for improvement. He makes a rule of checking into every classroom at least twice a day.

DeGrange calls parents to share both good and bad news about students. He took home the school yearbook upon his arrival and learned every student's name. He introduced literacy events such as book cafes and winter reading nights for students and parents to attend.

"To most of us, it seems Jerry practically lives here," wrote Karen Fitzpatrick, a school reading specialist, in a letter supporting his nomination. "He comes early and stays very late. He always takes the time needed for every detail."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company