An article in the Dec. 1 Anne Arundel Extra about Severna Park Middle School Principal Sharon Morell incorrectly reported the location of Old Mill Middle School North. It is in Millersville. (Published 12/8/2005)
During a bewildering first day as assistant principal of Old Mill North Middle School in Davidsonville, Sharon Morell discovered that everybody, including the students, seemed to be telling her what to do.
Morell took the veteran principal aside and asked: To whom does the school belong?
"He thought about it for a moment," Morell recalled that day in 1990. "And he said, 'You know, the administrators are the last ones who own the building.' "
That tenet -- that the principal's job is not only to lead the teachers, parents and students but also to serve them -- has guided Morell well.
She is now principal of Severna Park Middle School, an academic leader and home to some of the most demanding parents in the D.C. suburbs.
To be principal, Morell has learned, one must have the poise to withstand rhetorical assaults from parents with PhDs and the trust to delegate authority to 400 overachieving parent volunteers. Morell also has learned that she must have the savvy to steer the second-largest middle school in Anne Arundel County, yet enough sense to step aside and let one of the most talented groups of teachers and students do their thing.
"My job is to make this the school that the teachers want it to be, that the parents want it to be and that the children want it to be. And I am the vehicle to help them do that," Morell said.
Severna Middle has strengthened its claim as the best middle school in the county during Morell's nine years in charge. Among the 19 middle schools in Anne Arundel, Severna Park ranked top in sixth- and seventh-grade reading and math and in eighth-grade math on the 2005 Maryland School Assessment.
On another measure, participation in high school level math, Severna Park ranks first in the state. No middle school in Maryland had as many students who took and passed the High School Assessment in algebra, a test students may take in middle school if they are ready.
Based on the latest round of test scores, Severna Park earned a Maryland Blue Ribbon School award last month along with six other state schools. Last month, Morell earned the 2005 Washington Post Distinguished Educational Leadership Award.
Middle schools are, as a general rule, the forgotten stepchildren of public education. Most teachers enter public education to teach in elementary or high school. Most who end up in middle schools are either converts to the cause or newcomers, awaiting an assignment at a different school.
Middle school students seem caught in some hormonal void between childhood and adolescence. They are, according to experienced middle school teachers, at once the most difficult children to teach and the most rewarding. As if that weren't challenge enough, parent participation tends to drop off precipitously the moment a student enters the sixth grade.
Morell's school largely defies such stereotypes. Teachers consider Severna Park a destination, not a way station. And although many of its 85 teachers will confess they never intended to set foot in a middle school, nearly every one plans to stay. They stay because of the school's sterling test scores and the near fanatical parent support.
Membership in the Parent Teacher Organization exceeds 800 families, a staggering figure considering that parent group membership in some Anne Arundel middle schools wouldn't fill a single cafeteria table. A recent PTO meeting yielded a discussion about "how we had too many volunteers and not enough projects for them," PTO President Steve Anstett said.
Parent volunteers take turns sitting at a folding table just inside the school entrance, greeting -- and assessing -- every visitor who arrives during operating hours. A group of parents set the table up during the 2002 sniper attacks in the Washington region and has staffed it continuously since then.
Those same parents can, at times, be a tough crowd. Delegations from Severna Park middle and high schools routinely turn up at Board of Education meetings to opine on issues of the day. They are not afraid to assail school board members on a host of topics, such as the early high school start time or deferred maintenance at the two aging facilities.
"The community is extremely vocal," Morell said. "They know exactly what they want."
Every two weeks or so, Anstett brings the principal a pumpkin spice latte and the two sit down to talk about parents' concerns. Crowding has been on everyone's mind lately. Enrollment at the middle school is 1,390 and rising, owing to an influx of residents with school-age children. The school's capacity is 1,235 students.
"We had a meeting two weeks ago in a staff office that used to be a supply closet," Anstett said.
Morell has a reputation as a commanding, somewhat guarded administrator, supremely capable at managing a group of well-educated, well-compensated and fiercely determined parents.
"I guess she's learned over the years that if you waver or give in, what happens [is that] it can cause a huge mess," said Leslie Cowing, mother of an eighth-grader. "It's taken a good three years for me to become as close to her as I have."
Cowing said Morell has strong influence at the school system's Riva Road headquarters in Annapolis. Morell said she has no interest in ascending to higher management.
Morell was raised in Laurel. With only a fifth-grade education, her father worked as a printer and editor of the Laurel Leader, a community newspaper. Her college-educated mother was the first female draftsman to be hired by the Westinghouse Electric Co.
Attending Laurel elementary, middle and high schools, Morell was "the one who would stay after school and help the teacher." She edited her high school newspaper, joined the French Club and the National Junior Honor Society and played flute in the band.
She emerged from Towson University with a teaching credential and a conviction to teach children in poverty how to read. But she had a disastrous first year at a high-poverty school in Baltimore when "all of a sudden, I found out I didn't know how to teach kids how to read."
She returned to Towson and got a master's degree in reading, then went to Marley Junior High School (now Marley Middle School) in Anne Arundel as a reading specialist. She then spent 15 years as a seventh-grade language arts teacher and department chairman at Magothy River Middle in Arnold. She next became assistant principal at Old Mill North, her last posting before Severna Park.
A visitor to Severna Park immediately notices the dizzying array of colors and shapes of the locks on students' lockers, a product that clearly has evolved far beyond round, silver-and-black predictability. To Morell, that is a natural expression of the middle school psyche. "They love to express their individuality," she said.
It's not as simple as it sounds to inherit a high-performing school and keep test scores high. Morell implemented a series of focus groups to provide extra help to students who perform below the "proficient" cutoff on the MSA. She personally tracks their achievement at weekly staff meetings.
Another innovation is the Anchor Class, a modified homeroom that meets the last 10 minutes of every day, with each teacher assigned to mentor those students on homework and scheduling their day.
Morell has had nearly a decade to build her staff, and at this point, most of the 85 teachers arrived under her tenure. They include Cynthia Hardie, a sixth- and seventh-grade language arts teacher who worked under Morell, left for an elementary school and then returned to Severna Park.
"It's 10 times more work," Hardie said. "But it's 10 times more enjoyable."
Principal Sharon Morell said.Principal Sharon Morell talks with sixth-graders Adam Garver, 11, above left, and Luke Chamberlain, 11, in the school cafeteria. Left, she visits an Advancement Via Individual Determination class. The students are, clockwise from far left, Josh Woodard, Ryan Martin and Tim Murphy, all 12.