Kerry McGowan is a principal for the first time in her 20-year education career, but she was an assistant principal for seven years in Howard County. Is there really much difference between the two jobs?

"Yes!" declared McGowan, who has assumed the top post at Hammond Middle School. "I've been here three weeks. Probably, in the first 24 hours I discovered that."

McGowan is one of 14 principals who have new Howard school assignments this year. They have been promoted, transferred from other schools or are newcomers to the system. In the days before classes begin Monday, McGowan and her fellow principals have attended booster club meetings, chosen paint colors for the hallways, hired teachers, analyzed student test scores and become acquainted with PTA officers.

"It takes a lot of energy, but I love it," McGowan said. "I get to have a direct impact on the educational program."

Principals have to be comfortable coping with the unexpected.

During a question-and-answer session last week at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, a parent asked the school's new principal, Scott Pfeifer, "What do you expect to have happen at the start of the year?"

It was a tough question, given the grade tampering controversy that roiled the Centennial High community the past school year and heightened racial tensions.

Pfeifer, a 30-year Howard schools veteran and former principal at River Hill High School, conceded he did not know but said he was working to keep the lines of communication open and be a "calming presence."

"They certainly look to me to set the tone," he said. Pfeifer has taken steps to increase the diversity of his staff and has held human relations training.

"Everybody wants to move forward," he said.

That is also the philosophy at River Hill, where Pfeifer's successor, William Ryan, smiled when he heard that Pfeifer in a good-natured way is urging Centennial athletes to beat River Hill this fall.

"Well, he'll find out I'm pretty competitive," said Ryan, who was an award-winning principal at High Point High School in Beltsville before coming to Howard.

In Prince George's County, Ryan crafted initiatives to boost achievement at a high school where many students come from low-income families and incidents of gang-related violence threatened the community.

His task at affluent, high-performing River Hill, said Ryan, is "maintaining the high standards that have been established here."

Gina Massella, the new principal at Howard High School, is stepping into a more uncertain situation. Parents criticized her predecessor for letting the academic program falter, and Howard has been added to the county's list of schools that need improvement.

Massella, a 25-year educator who has worked in the Baltimore, Carroll and Howard county schools, said she has received support. But she knows there are expectations, too.

"What the community is looking for is collaboration," she said. "Parents want to be heard. They want their views respected."

Genee Varlack is happy that her promotion from assistant principal to principal this year at Guilford Elementary did not require her to move to another school. Guilford also appears on the school improvement list.

"There's been no staff turnover," she said. "It speaks to the efforts we've made. I can see things through to fruition that we've started here."

Karl Schindler, Glenelg High School's new principal, has been an educator for 24 years, but his career got off to a rocky start. After his first year of teaching in the Baltimore city schools, he was one of 500 teachers who were laid off. Not long after that, he found a more welcoming situation in Howard and has been here ever since, first as an English teacher and then as an assistant principal.

"I'll be here 25 more years if they'll allow me," he said.

Karl Schindler, an educator for 24 years, embraces his new assignment as principal of Glenelg High School.