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Classrooms To Cupcakes: Two Principals Exchange Old Careers For New

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A year ago, Adele Cothorne, right, and Bill Kerlina — two former DCPS principals — left the education field to open up Cooks 'n Cakes Bakery.
Kavitha Cardoza
A year ago, Adele Cothorne, right, and Bill Kerlina — two former DCPS principals — left the education field to open up Cooks 'n Cakes Bakery.

Adele Cothorne cuts up chunks of slippery, glistening white cream cheese to weigh. "I use a scale because I learned that when you're producing large batches, it doesn't help to use measuring spoons!" she says.

At the beginning of the week she bakes about 500 cupcakes a day. But by Friday, she says it's up to 800 cupcakes. Cothorne delights in dreaming up new cupcake varieties. There's a pomegranate martini cupcake, a bacon cupcake, and even a fried chicken cupcake.

Cothorne opened Cooks 'n Cakes Bakery in Ellicott City, Md. after spending 16 years as an educator in Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery county school districts. The decision was a leap of faith, but she says one year as principal of Noyes Education Campus in Northeast D.C. was enough for her.

Last year she left a $127,000 job with DCPS to start a gourmet cupcake business along with another disillusioned principal, Bill Kerlina.

"I did jump on with the Michelle Rhee bandwagon, and was really hoping for strong, true reform for the school district," says Cothorne.

Both Kerlina and Cothorne were hired by former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, but left under current chancellor, Kaya Henderson. At least 17 principals are leaving DCPS this year, and a majority of them were hired by Rhee. Last year, there were principal turnovers at 23 schools

Dealing with school rules

Kerlina has 17 years of experience in education, mostly in Montgomery County. He was head of Hearst Elementary School in Northwest D.C. for two years. Both he and Cothorne stayed a far shorter time than the average five-year tenure of an urban public school principal. But both these former school administrators brighten when they recall their teachers, parents and especially the children.

"I loved the kids," says Cothorne. "They always come to you as they are. No hidden agendas."

"I really liked the ability to think outside the box," says Kerlina. "I enjoyed projects, field trips, getting kids to really do research."

Ask them what they didn't like, and they answer almost in unison. It's what they call DCPS's "extreme, intense, overwhelming focus on testing."

"Just because you teach it on Monday at 2, and the kids don't get it, doesn't mean they aren't going to get it Saturday when they're at soccer practice," says Cothorne. "But we have gotten to a point that every child has to get it by Monday at 2, because we're going to test Tuesday morning at 9."

Both former principals say they received little support from DCPS's central office.

"If your numbers don't look right, you're going to get a phone call or a nasty email even if you've been there 12-14 hours a day, sometimes getting advice from people who have never walked in your shoes," he says. "For me, personally it was way too much."

Feeling powerless

Kerlina says one incident in particular still upsets him. "We had the power go out at our school. And it was rainy and cold and completely dark and I ended up asking the Sidwell principal, Sidwell middle school, if we could move our students over there, and she allowed us to."

He says no one from the central office ever contacted him, so he decided to send everyone home. "And I got my hand slapped. But if no one from the central office is available, and I'm at a privately funded school that can only host me for four hours, what am I supposed to do? There was no guidance."

They also say their teachers got very little substantive professional development.

"Whereas I felt the professional development in other counties was really systemic," says Kerlina. "In Montgomery, we didn't just talk about how does race influence teaching and learning for a month and move on, we talked about it for three years."

Both Cothorne's and Kerlina's schools saw their test scores drop while they were principals. But both say they have DCPS paperwork stating they could renew their contracts if they wanted to.

DCPS doesn't offer any explanations about why principals leave to "respect privacy and personnel details. In general, DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz says they take several issues into consideration including test scores, family and community satisfaction, school culture, and enrollment figures. But she says the focus is always on what's best for students.

She declined to provide a breakdown of how many principals retire, resign, or as the school system puts it, are "non-reappointed."

Principal churn

Research from the Wallace Foundation shows what's called "principal churn, which creates serious problems for a school. Students, teachers and parents have to get used to a new person's priorities, and new relationships have to be formed. Plus, there's always the danger staffers believe they don't need to do things differently, because the new principal will leave soon as well.

"Who can be mad when you come into a cupcake shop?" says Cothorne.

She isn't just referring to her customers. Being happy is important to these former principals as well. Cothorne says it's ironic the cupcakes she baked as gifts to cheer up her teachers have become her fulltime career. She says it was hard to leave her job in education, even though she would never go back to being a principal. For his part, Kerlina hasn't completely closed the door on returning.

"Who knows what will happen, but certainly DCPS will not be in my future," he says. "When you're a principal, that is an exciting job. How much more exciting can it be than to affect a child's ability to learn something new?"

Kerlina says he walked away from a $95,000 job, and is hardly making any money now. Still, he believes he has something even more sweet, something that makes it easier to get out of bed early in the morning: A renewed sense of purpose.

Extra Audio: A different version of this story originally ran on Metro Connection


[Music: "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd've Baked You a Cake" by Tommy Watts & His Orchestra from Watt's Cooking / "Thank U (Remix)" by Jimmy Mureau from Thank U (Album Version)"]

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