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Hands-on leadership raises inner city school to national blue ribbon standard

Johns Hopkins
Roxanne Forr, a School of Education alumna, has spent nearly a quarter century at Cecil Elementary School in Baltimore. As a teacher, assistant principal and now principal, she has educated two generations of the community. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu


You won't find the neighborhood surrounding Cecil Elementary on any tourism videos. The struggling community that sits around the corner from Greenmount Cemetery, the final resting place of a man named Johns Hopkins and many prominent Baltimoreans, is dotted with vacant, boarded-up houses and backyards overgrown with weeds.

And, yet, in the midst of such difficult challenges, there's achievement - significant achievement.

More than nine out of 10 students at Cecil Elementary School pass the reading and math portions of the Maryland Scholastic Assessment each spring. The scores for this school in one of Baltimore's least prosperous neighborhoods rank among the top five percent in the country, earning the school national Blue Ribbon recognition, which it proudly displays painted on the wall near the main entrance.

At the heart of the school's success is principal Roxanne Forr who has spent nearly a quarter century in the old brick school building. Born in Pennsylvania, she moved to Baltimore and got her start at Cecil Elementary as a teacher in 1986. Since then, she has taught, mentored other teachers and served as assistant principal before being promoted to be the school's leader in 2007.

"When I moved into the city, I thought 'I'm going to be living in the city, why shouldn't I be contributing?'" says Forr, who earned a master's degree in School Administration and Supervision from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in 1996.

She said that she immediately felt a sense of community from the students, parents, faculty and staff when she arrived, a feeling that she works to maintain by making sure each guest is welcomed upon arrival.

"We are one of the few factors in the community that is truly positive and the community knows that. We receive their support because they know we are working to improve the neighborhood," Forr says.

Family participation is crucial to the students' success, Forr says. In order to improve cooperation between the teachers and parents, the school hosts regular Family Fun Nights where parents are encouraged to attend special programs with their children to learn about specific subjects such as math or science. Some of those parents are very familiar with Cecil Elementary, and Roxanne Forr - they were her students at Cecil when they were themselves in school.

Forr is only the fifth principal in the school's 45-year history, with each preceding administrator having spent an average of a decade in the position. The similarly impressive retention rate among faculty, she says, is critical to the school's success. The faculty has remained largely intact for three years, Forr says, and the last two departures have been due to promotions within the system.

"We get to really know the kids, know the parents and know what's going on in this neighborhood, and they really get to know us, as well," she says.

Forr savors the opportunity to mentor young teachers as her predecessors previously mentored her. She credits the leadership classes that she took at Johns Hopkins for giving her perspective on how to be an effective leader.

"Situations arise every day and I think, 'How can I best handle this?' I think back to those classes that I've been part of," she says. "I think, 'How can I make them think about what they are doing?' I try to think, what have I been trained to do as a leader to get that result."

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