When Parkland Junior High School and Belt Junior High were merged three years ago, the new Rockville hybrid had a high potential for disaster.
The number of students at Parkland had doubled to almost 1,200. Belt students and teachers missed their old school and some were suspicious and resentful of their new school. Parkland students and parents feared that academic standards at their school would decline.
In contrast, Parkland today is a united school where old rivalries are long forgotten. Standards did not fall. Instead, 30 percent of Parkland students attend honors classes, and last year almost all of Parkland's ninth graders passed the Maryland Functional Reading Test.
Yesterday, Parkland was honored by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the nation's outstanding public schools. It was among 217 public and 64 private middle and senior high schools that received awards for excellence in education at a White House ceremony. Maryland had seven public schools and seven private schools among those honored.
Three of the public schools honored are in Rockville: Parkland, Thomas S. Wootton High School and Redland Middle School. Four public schools in Virginia, among them Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, and Browne Junior High School in the District also were honored.
The schools were judged on qualities including high expectations for students, rewards and incentives for students, teacher efficacy, positive school climate and administrative leadership.
At the awards luncheon, held at the historic Pension Building in downtown Washington, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said good schools "hold high expectations for all students and share the belief that all students can and will learn."
Parkland Principal Katheryn Gemberling said her school's success is largely owed to the dedication of its teachers.
"They make an effort to reach every student," Gemberling said earlier this week.
Among the decorations in her office at the school on W. Frankfort Street is a poster of a penguin with the caption: "I know it isn't necessary to bow before the principal but it's smart," an ironic tribute to a principal whose management style is to confer with teachers and other staff members about curriculum changes, programs and problems.
Gemberling meets twice a week with the heads of every department. "We really do exchange ideas."
One of the results the brainstorming sessions have wrought is that this year the school began a special class for students who are on the verge of dropping out, called Project Choice. Students and parents sign a contract in which the students agree to attend a special class and abide by a strict set of rules. If they don't show up for school, Gemberling has given orders to have them picked up and brought in.
One of Gemberling's pet projects has been getting teachers to work with minority students to help them pass the ninth-grade functional math and reading tests. The school has a 35 percent minority enrollment.
Last year, Gemberling said, of black students who took the tests, all passed in reading and 85 percent passed in math.
Gemberling said she tries to know as many of her students personally as she can. At 3:16 p.m. daily she is planted in the hallway near her office, watching the students depart, and anyone going home without books gets stopped.
"Most of the teachers at Parkland want you to do well and they help you out after school and that makes you want to do better," said 14-year-old Megan Maloney, a lanky ninth grader, who is on the school's cross-country ski team.
Gemberling "had a lot of ideas when she came here," Megan said. "That's why she made it strict. So her ideas are followed."