Rebecca Newman didn’t have to endure much roasting during her farewell roast last week, but one Newman-ism became a recurrent theme throughout the tribute:
“Now hear me loud and clear.”
Newman may rest assured she has been heard loud and clear by students, staff and parents after eight years as Wootton’s principal. Newman has been heard beyond the Wootton community as well, by the U.S. Department of Education that named Wootton a Blue Ribbon School in 2002, by Newsweek magazine readers who saw Wootton listed as one of the nation’s top 100 public high schools last month.
Newman has accepted a position as CEO of the county principals’ union, beginning July 1.
“It’s simply an energy issue,” said Newman, who underwent surgery this spring and was on medical leave for much of the time since. “I think I need a job that is a little less strenuous. … I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s simply taking a bit longer to recover.”
Those who know her doubt that she will coast in any job.
“Becky’s a fighter. She really believes passionately in what she does. … She’s going to drive the superintendent, school board and the County Council crazy,” said Karen Askin, Wootton’s PTA president. “I think there are too many people… who don’t know any more what it means to be on the front line.”
Newman arrived as Wootton’s principal in 1995, after a brief tenure as principal at Paint Branch High School.
Newman,” said Carol Solomon, leader of Wootton’s Humanities and Arts Signature program. “It is not the same school. It is a school that is pulsating with excitement and change.”
NEWMAN’S COWORKERS in the Wootton community describe her as a no-nonsense leader, who brought an inclusive educational philosophy to Wootton and the determination to implement it.
“She is very friendly, but she’s very focused, she’s very disciplined and she’s very demanding,” said Joy Pohl, resource teacher for Wootton’s English department. “There are some principals who let things happen, and there are some principals who make things happen. … She’s made it into a really exciting school [and] a learning environment for teachers as well as kids.”
“She did not tolerate a lot of kidding around,” said Askin. “She probably is on the right-wing conservative side when it comes to those kinds of issues.”
“You don’t always make people happy,” said Newman. “There have been times when, with individual parents, we have just not agreed, and that’s difficult.”
“My job is not really to make everyone happy. … My job is to make sure the children are safe, have choices and have opportunity.”
ONE MONTH AGO, Wootton was named one of the nation’s top 100 high schools by Newsweek magazine. Much of the criteria used in Newsweek’s rankings stems from the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. Last year, more than 83 percent of Wootton students were enrolled in an AP or Honors course.
“We have a lot of kids who try things that in the past, we wouldn’t have suggested they try,” said Gay Maslow, resource teacher in Wootton’s social studies department. “She encouraged us to try. … That’s where she leaves her mark the most — she’s completely committed to educating these children.”
Kartik Pattabiraman wanted to take a course at Johns Hopkins University the summer after his freshman year. When some teachers seemed stumped as to how Pattabiraman could enroll and get credit, he went straight to Newman.
“She was really helpful. I easily got an appointment,” said Pattabiraman, who just graduated from Wootton and will attend Brown University. “She wanted you to go ahead and excel.”
INCLUSIVENESS FOR courses once reserved only for perceived “elite” students is central to Newman’s educational philosophy.
“She doesn’t really buy into the notion of inherent brilliance. She really believes that everyone with the right preparation and the right tools can do anything,” said Askin. “The biggest change is the attitude of the adults in that building.”
Askin believes most of Wootton’s staff bought into the ‘bell curve’ notion of student capabilities – that a small number of top students are capable of handling the most challenging courses – before the Newman Era. “She single-handedly knocked that notion out of the attitudes of her staff.”
Newman also paid close attention to data about race and gender to measure the inclusiveness of Wootton’s programs, said Pohl. For example, there were not enough male students enrolled in AP literature, and not enough females enrolled in an advanced science program. “We look at that and we figure out how to target that,” said Pohl. “She’s very much a kid advocate and a performance advocate.”
“I think you start out with the assumption that every child is capable of taking a rigorous courseload,” said Newman. “We’ve got a lot of work to get every single child there.”
MANY WOOTTON TEACHERS point to the school’s signature humanities program as one of Newman’s legacies for the school. The Humanities Institute started two years ago with 50 students, and now enrolls 263.
“We really started planning this about four years ago,” said Carol Solomon, leader of Wootton’s Humanities and Arts Signature program. “She had the sense of creating at Wootton a humanities program that was as strong as the science and technology academies.”
Even as the school expanded its AP offerings, the Humanities Institute provided a counterbalance of sorts. “This gives both kids and teachers greater latitude and the ability to be a little more playful with what’s offered.”
“I HAVE SO MANY great memories,” said Newman of her tenure at Wootton. “Almost every single day I laughed. … There were so many humorous, lighthearted things that were happening.”
As the school underwent reconstruction several years ago, it became commonplace for Newman to hear that drywall from a ceiling had collapsed in the building minutes before period bell sounded. Newman and staff had to leap into response and extend class period, but “they stopped being serious,” Newman said.
Seniors brightened the construction site as a prank one spring, where the construction trailers outside the school were transformed into a trailer park complete with sand, umbrellas and plastic flamingos.
LEADING THROUGH ADVERSITY
As Wootton’s principal for the past eight years, Rebecca Newman led the school during the Columbine shootings, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the area sniper shootings last October.
Newman said full disclosure to students as information became available was a priority during crisis situations. “I’m always a big one for letting students know,” she said.
After students are aware of the situation, Newman said the priority was “not to sit around, feel sorry for ourselves, feel helpless and scared.”
Rather, students were encouraged to express their reactions, through speaking or writing, then asking themselves as a group: “We’re a small community of 2,500 people. What can we do?”
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Wootton students collaborated in creating a large flag mural, and the school held a candlelight vigil attended by thousands from the community.
HUMANITIES AND ARTS PROGRAM
WHAT: A program of core and elective courses in humanities and arts.
WHEN: The Humanities Institute began in the 2001-02 academic year at Wootton.
WHO: Students in eighth and ninth grade may enroll in the academy, and 10th-graders may enroll on a space-available basis.
WHY: “Newman had the sense of creating at Wootton as humanities program that was as strong as the science and technology academies,” said Carol Solomon, leader of the Humanities Institute.
HOW: Students enroll in course requirements, electives and either study abroad or complete a humanities internship.
COURSES: Several of the Humanities Institute courses offered to students:
* Fantasy Literature
* The Influence of the Media in American Society
* Thinking and Writing for College
* Lovers, Liars and Lunatics: the Lighter Side of Shakespeare
WHAT: Wootton’s science department describes the academy as “a certificate program for students who are interested in the science of biotechnology and how new DNA technologies affect the ethical, legal and social issues of our lives.”
HOW: Academy students complete advanced science, math and elective courses and an internship.
WHO: Non-academy students may enroll in the courses as well as those who seek the certificate.
WHAT ELSE: In March and April this year, Wootton sponsored a “DNA for Dani,” fundraising drive to help cover the cost of a bone marrow transplant for Dani Shotel, a 1994 Wootton graduate who was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia last year.
WHAT: Wootton’s special education department features a Learning for Independence program, a student-run coffee delivery business, and a program integrating special education students in classrooms with a special education teacher and a subject-certified teacher.
WHY: Although Newman described Wootton’s special education program as excellent when she arrived, it remained a priority for her as principal. Prior becoming a high school principal, Newman worked at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents (RICA), a county school in Rockville for severely emotionally disturbed students.
HOW: “She’s been supportive of things that are avant-garde,” said Wootton special education teacher Scott Doying. “She gave us room to take risks. … Students that don’t take part in [AP or Honors courses] still have a chance to take part in the school.”
MONTGOMERY COLLEGE INSTITUTE
WHO: Wootton students in their senior academic year.
WHAT: An advance curriculum in which students take Montgomery College courses.
WHY: “Transitioning from high school to college needs a senior year different from the three others,” said Carol Solomon, a Wootton English teacher.
“We’re hoping that every senior will take an internship before graduating,” said Rebecca Newman.