Wednesday, July 25, 2007

New principal hopes to add signature to middle school

Head of E. Brooke Lee seeks to reverse declining enrollment

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Carolyn Cobbs, former principal at Twinbrook Elementary School in Rockville, poses in the hallway of Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School, where she has been named the new principal, replacing Mary Beth Waits.
In an effort to attract more students, newly hired principal Carolyn Cobbs is lobbying to introduce a signature program to Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring.

Other nearby middle schools like Argyle, A. Mario Loiederman, and Parkland are part of a consortium and each has specific programs available only at that school. Cobbs said a signature program at the school would make it stronger academically and as a community.

Cobbs, 55, said she was impressed with the staff at Lee and the increase in test scores, but the student population has decreased over time.

‘‘You have some real quality work going on there, but I think it’s missed because we don’t have that special program,” Cobbs said.

She did not specify what kind of program she would be interested in bringing to the school. Argyle features information technology; Loiederman has an arts focus and Parkland has aerospace and robotic engineering.

According to the school system’s enrollment projections, Lee is slated to experience a decrease in student population over the next several years. Bruce Crispell, director of the division of Long-range Planning for MCPS, said that the school has seen a decrease, but so have the other county middle schools.

Lee’s population in 2004-2005 was 627, then it dropped to 583 in 2005-2006 and then to 500 in 2006-2007.

Heath E. Morrison, a community superintendent for MCPS, said he has talked with Cobbs about the possibility of a signature program, but that its success depends mostly on what the program is and how it fits into the needs of the school.

He also said that it would be hard to say whether the absence of a program at Lee is in direct correlation to the decline in enrollment.

Cobbs, who was the principal at Twinbrook Elementary School in Rockville for eight years, said she decided to make the switch to middle schools after spending time in Montgomery County Public School’s office of Middle School Instruction and Achievement working on middle school reform.

‘‘Those middle years really make or break the future of the child, and that’s where I wanted to focus,” Cobbs said.

Addressing suspensions

Besides a decreasing population, Lee also has had some issues with suspension numbers, which were the highest in the county in the 2005-2006 school year. Under former principal Mary Beth Waits, however, the school implemented a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, which rewarded students for doing positive things in school.

Cobbs said she supported the program and would continue it through her tenure there. She also said that despite the suspension numbers at Lee, she did not think Lee had a major problem.

‘‘I think our kids are just kids just like any other adolescents at any middle school,” she said. ‘‘I don’t think we have a preponderance of behavior issues.”

Ila Norwood, co-president of the Parent Teacher Association at Lee, said that Lee had been unfairly given a bad reputation in the past.

‘‘I think it’s unfortunate that the school is solely judged by those end-result numbers and then that categorizes if the school is a success,” she said.

Norwood said that Cobbs has shown her that she will relate to students, parents and faculty.

‘‘[Cobbs has] some great ideas of where we can focus talent that we have at Lee and ... would take Lee as a school to another level [with] a very specific and unique type of program,” Norwood said. ‘‘I think we’re going to benefit tremendously.”

Waits, 59, who has retired after more than 30 years in education, will spend the next several weeks in West Virginia with family. She said despite wanting some rest and relaxation, she hopes to continue to be involved with Montgomery County schools and education in some way.

‘‘More than anything, my biggest accomplishment is helping kids succeed and [getting them to] take advantage of the education opportunities,” she said.

Waits said to successfully lead Lee, Cobbs would need to keep up the momentum and focus on maintaining achievement from the neediest students to the smartest students.

Judy Thomas, president of the PTA at Twinbrook, said that she believed Cobbs would be able to do just that.

‘‘Her legacy was the fact that she was great at picking the best staff,” Thomas said. ‘‘The test results were just incredible at Twinbrook Elementary School, and I think that starts with the principal.”