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A Principal With Long Reach in the Region

Michael E. Durso, who has served as a principal in Maryland, Virginia and the District, is now a member of the Montgomery County school board.
Michael E. Durso, who has served as a principal in Maryland, Virginia and the District, is now a member of the Montgomery County school board. (Courtesy Of Montgomery County Public Schools)

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, July 6, 2009

When I first met him a dozen years ago, Mike Durso struck me as an okay principal. He didn't say much about himself, but his school, Springbrook High in Silver Spring, was well-run. The students liked him. He had been around a long time, another good sign.

It took some time to realize how badly he had deceived me. His adopted persona, good ol' boy administrator, hid something more important. I began looking for clues to how amazing Durso was, what an impact he was having on the region with his phenomenal eye for talent, while he pretended to be like everybody else, just getting through the day.

I got to know Doris Jackson at Wakefield High School in Arlington, one of the most creative administrators I had ever seen. She had turned her overlooked campus in an old building in the poorest part of the county into a national model for raising the achievement of low-income minority kids. Eventually she told me how much she learned when she worked at Lincoln Junior High in the District. Who was her principal? Mike Durso. Former Lincoln teacher Carlos Hamlin, now a Montgomery County principal, said Durso transformed that junior high school.

One D.C. principal I often checked with was Maria Tukeva. She had started a program for the children of low-income immigrants that became a full-fledged school, Bell Multicultural High, with a talented faculty and a strong college focus. One day she let slip her secret: She had previously worked at Lincoln Junior High, too, for you know whom.

I managed a peek at Durso's résumé. It revealed that he had been a principal in all three of the region's major jurisdictions -- at Lincoln and at Wilson High in the District (where he was born and raised), at Yorktown High in Virginia and at Springbrook in Maryland. It was a remarkable hat trick. Who was this guy? Durso shrugged that off. He told me it meant he couldn't hold a job.

When many of his protégés were showing other schools how to use Advanced Placement with disadvantaged students, Durso did them one better and added International Baccalaureate to the already AP-rich curriculum at Springbrook, one of the county's most ethnically diverse schools. In May 1996, just before Durso arrived at the school, Springbrook gave 255 AP tests. Last year it gave 939 AP and IB exams, a 268 percent increase.

It took 12 years of collecting data to unearth that Durso fact. But this year he let his guard down. He announced he was retiring. I finally had an excuse to contact all of those students and teachers and principals he had mentored. They had much to say. The aw-shucks principal turned out to have a huge heart, an iron will and a 250-gig memory.

Michael A. Hunt, now a Montgomery schools administrator with two graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University, was a class-skipping troublemaker at Wilson High when he encountered Durso, then an assistant principal. "Durso was not your typical white guy," Hunt, who is black, recalled. "He cared about us, and we hated that back then. Being the '70s, it wasn't cool for a white teacher to get into a brother's face, but Mike did it and we took it -- from him. You could tell he meant it when he said he believed in you and was disappointed in your behavior. This attitude and compassion for us kept the peace during a time of tension."

Durso's talent radar was always on. Maychel Harris, an assistant principal at Springbrook, began his career as a building service worker. When, as a junior administrator, he met Durso during a summer school assignment, the older man took an immediate interest in him. Deep inside the Durso brain, another name and face was added to his long list.

Tyrone Byrd, the new principal of George Mason High School in Falls Church, met Durso when he applied to be an assistant freshman football coach at Yorktown High. Two days later, Durso talked him into also taking a job as a teacher in the school, even though he was two years away from getting his credentials. "He taught me that people are more important than policies and that genuine devotion to children is the paramount indicator of our collective success as a society," Byrd said.

Durso did not spare his protégés when they faltered, said veteran Springbrook math/science teacher Cyrus Ishikawa, but gave feedback in a non-threatening way. He would ask if a different approach to a problem would have led to a different result, an invitation to deeper thought and better tactics. Few people escaped Durso's gravitational tug, no matter how far they went. Debra Mugge, one of his assistant principals from 2001 to 2004, left to take over Argyle Middle School, but last week she was back as his Springbrook successor.

He can be hard to figure out. He insists that students call him Mr. Durso, said Michael Rice, a former Wilson teacher and now chief of Kalamazoo, Mich., schools, then shows up on Halloween dressed as Mother Superior. Last month he sprang another surprise, ending his retirement before it began by letting the county school board make him, at 66, their unanimous choice to fill an empty seat on the board.

Can Mr. Principal, who loves being with kids, survive as Mr. School Board Member, listening to droning reports in a room full of adults deep into the night? Oh, I forgot: School board members have influence over who will be the next generation of principals. I see why he might like that.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com.


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