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The Fixer: a principal who made a difference

[This piece by me appeared in the Washington Post Magazine on Sunday, April 11, when I was on vacation. I thought I should post it here in case anyone missed it.]

On the last day of school in 1987, Wakefield High School's brand-new principal, Marie Shiels Djouadi, was already in trouble. The school hallways appeared to have been hit by a hurricane, with papers, notebooks, gum wrappers, soft drink cans, magazines and she-did-not-want-to-guess-what-else at least six inches deep everywhere. The head janitor was seething. He and his staff were once again victims of what the students considered a lighthearted prank celebrating their freedom. As they did every year, they had dumped everything out of their lockers before they got on the last buses.

It was an aggravating manifestation of what Djouadi faced. Wakefield was in a downward spiral. The old school building was wearing out on its ragged campus above the Route 7 commercial strip in south Arlington. Standards had slipped. Teachers were discouraged. Poor immigrant families poured in with problems that they could not communicate to educators.

Djouadi [pronounced joo-ODD-ee], a former member of the order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, had a reputation as a sharp-witted intellectual, but she had never run a high school before. She was the first woman in Arlington to get such an assignment. Many people wondered if she was up to it. "Oh, my God," she said to herself, ankle-deep in debris, "how are we going to turn this around?"

Two decades later, Wakefield has become one of the nation's most celebrated success stories. Under Djouadi, who retired in 2002 and is now 68, and her hand-picked successor, Doris Jackson, the school has raised state achievement test results significantly for its largely low-income students. It has tripled participation in Advanced Placement tests, while also raising its passing rate on the difficult three-hour exams. Its record, in a school where more than 70 percent of the students are Hispanic or black and at least 50 percent are low-income, led President Obama to make it the site of a major education address last September.

With those glitzy statistics, it is tempting to turn Djouadi's career into a movie treatment -- tough-as-nails, smart-as-Socrates former nun cracks down on sloth and vandalism in a bad school and saves the community. But Djouadi's success was hard-won. Administrators, teachers and students loved her predecessor, who was easygoing and avuncular, and weren't ready for an impatient woman getting in their faces.

"I had had seven years as an elementary school principal with many disadvantaged students, and thought I knew the secrets to turning around a school on a much larger scale," Djouadi said. "But I had to learn to go slow."

Successful school revivals, the Djouadi story suggests, are often pure luck, propelled by the serendipitous presence of smart and resourceful people above and below the principal at the right moment. If the fall of Saigon had not led Arlington to hire Djouadi to manage an influx of Vietnamese children for the school system, if the School Board had not taken the initiative to lure middle-class families back to Wakefield, if the school had not had a core of experienced and productive teachers who stayed despite its declining reputation, if superintendents Arthur Gosling and Robert Smith had not given Djouadi the extra staff and resources she needed, and if Djouadi had not succeeded in hiring Jackson as guidance director, Obama would have picked some other school to host his speech.

Djouadi was not an obvious choice for Wakefield before she was hired. Gosling asked what she knew about football, since the sport then, as now, defined high schools in many people's minds. She replied that she did not think football was important. The counseling department was a mess. Racial tension crackled. At one point, she and assistant principal Dale Bethel had to stand between a group of African American students and a group of Hispanic students to ward off a fight. In another instance, she stepped outside and found a man who had wandered onto the campus pointing a gun directly at her.


She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Chicago, attending Catholic schools. In high school, she was absorbed in just one thing: music. She played the piano, organ, clarinet, flute and saxophone. She went to Mundelein College in Chicago and then joined the Sisters of Charity, an order known for building leaders who thought of themselves as highly as Marie Shiels did. She thought she might want to marry, so she left the order and earned a PhD in linguistics at Georgetown University. She married Mokrane Djouadi in 1971. (They divorced in 1975.)

She was hired by Arlington to handle the Vietnamese immigrants, and then a flood of children from Central American families. She set up the High Intensity Language Training program to help new students improve their English. She served as principal of Patrick Henry Elementary School, full of immigrant families, from 1980 to 1987.

She arrived at Wakefield in a period of policy ferment. Gosling and the School Board were innovators. Two years of retreats, studies and reports encouraged teachers to offer their most daring ideas. Wakefield became one of the first schools in the region to have three 90-minute periods a day. Djouadi organized the Foundation Program for Academic Excellence, which turned the school's ninth grade into a prep school for students who had rarely before been held to rigorous academic standards. Wakefield counselors and teachers combed the records of freshmen deemed unpromising for faint signs of potential. They steered them into courses more challenging than they had tried before. Teachers pushed them hard to excel. Wakefield added a strong technology program, a portfolio writing program, a summer institute and a Saturday science lab.

Gosling said Djouadi had the qualities necessary to save a school. "You have to be willing to take some risks and have the savvy and the know-how to push the faculty in a constructive way." The key to Djouadi's approach, Smith said, was "holding high expectations for herself, students and faculty, and acting as an advocate for students, their families and faculty."

The result was students such as Katrina Harpe, class of '98, the daughter of a computer technician and a retail clerk who had never been placed in any gifted program. At Wakefield, she was put on the track for several AP courses, followed by a National Merit Scholarship, admission to Yale, medical school and now a family medicine practice in Fredericksburg.

"She constantly pushed for us to do better and work harder, and many of us did," Harpe said.

In one daring move, Djouadi, Jackson and their teachers made it a graduation requirement that each student do a senior project -- an internship, a lengthy report, a musical recital, something that forced students to explore personal interests. Only private schools did such things, but the Wakefield team insisted, even after almost all of the first student project proposals were rejected by the faculty advisers, and even after a student petition demanded that the school forget the whole idea.

Senior projects became a huge success. A football player produced a computer-generated yearbook of his team's season, with animated diagrams of each play. A student who planned to skip college for cooking school analyzed the level of care at a local senior citizens' home. One student paper, "A Dynamic Modified Hamiltonian Path Problem," explained how to target asteroids about to destroy Earth.

Many parents loved the new focus on demanding preparation for college. But not everything worked. The Djou-adi team created a special half-day program of integrated instruction in English, social studies and the arts for 10th-graders. But scheduling became difficult, "and we abandoned it," she said.

Students stopped trashing the floors, but the building is still in bad shape. Only now are architects drawing plans for a replacement.

Djouadi and Jackson complemented each other. The hard-charging principal would pull staff into her office for a briefing on the next set of reforms; then the guidance head would welcome the exhausted group into her office and "help put their egos back together," Jackson said. Gradually, Jackson helped Djouadi become more people-friendly. Jackson became assistant principal, and when Djouadi retired in 2002, Jackson was named principal.


Djouadi has spent the eight years since she retired from Wakefield trying to help other schools in Virginia and the District. She preaches her unshakable theory of school salvation: You have to be tough and imaginative, but, more important, you need to inspire and support the teachers, and give them the credit. Without a core of hardworking, creative educators in the classrooms, seeing themselves as a team, nothing useful is going to happen, Djouadi says. In that sense, she was a forerunner of a new generation of educators, such as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who are impatient for change but find they need enough like-minded teachers to achieve it.

That is part of the message Djouadi delivers each week to Hoffman-Boston and Randolph elementary schools in Arlington as she adjusts to life after the death in 2008 of her husband, former Arlington school administrator, Jack Dent. She cares for her young grandson three days a week and advises schools the other two.

Djouadi said she keeps working in schools because she still knows how to make them much better. Arlington County spokeswoman Linda Erdos teasingly refers to Djouadi as "a failed retiree" and predicts the same fate for Jackson, who announced her own retirement in September.

One recent afternoon, Djouadi joined Randolph principal Renee Bostick and her leadership team in the school's math coaches' tiny room. Seven women scrunched into fifth-grade-size seats around a fourth-grade-size table. For two hours they coped with the intricacies of assessment. Djouadi asked many questions, all in a friendly tone.

In the meeting, Djouadi repeatedly praised ideas suggested by Randolph staff members and said she was recommending them to school headquarters and to other schools. The group discussed directives from headquarters -- how best to implement them and fulfill the school system's mandates. Djouadi suggested the staff members do what made sense to them, hinting that she would make the necessary explanations to the policymakers above.

She offered some public relations advice. Sometimes parents, and even teachers, questioned the reasons for some of the school's initiatives. Here, Djouadi said, choice of words was crucial. For instance, people might complain that the school's preparations for the state exams was "teaching to the test." Djouadi had heard that one before. Her suggested response: "Is there something bad in the test we should not be teaching to?"

Learning requires review, a type of "re-teaching." That is what tests are for, Djouadi explained. She looked at the educators sitting around the low table, waiting expectantly for an answer. They needed to offer complainers a new perspective, she said, to see the essence of what the school was trying to achieve. When people express concern about tests, she said, "it may be a problem of vocabulary. I say: 'We are teaching and re-teaching for understanding.'"

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By Jay Mathews  | April 20, 2010; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Marie Djouadi, formula for fixing schools, getting staff behind you, principal improves school, raising high school standards  
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Thanks for the repost. I did miss it.

"She preaches her unshakable theory of school salvation: You have to be tough and imaginative, but, more important, you need to inspire and support the teachers, and give them the credit. Without a core of hardworking, creative educators in the classrooms, seeing themselves as a team, nothing useful is going to happen, Djouadi says. In that sense, she was a forerunner of a new generation of educators, such as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who are impatient for change but find they need enough like-minded teachers to achieve it."

From what she has done and said, I would say that does not seem like Miss Rhee.

Posted by: edlharris | April 20, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

You ruined a wonderful saluate to a wonderful lady by comparing her to Rhee. Shame on you, still using any and every occasion to promote Rhee including death (Mr. Betts, a Rhee superstar). Are you and other pro-Rhee folks that desperate?

Boy, you are some cheerleader.

Posted by: dccounselor72 | April 20, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

For dccounselor72---I have made no secret of my admiration for Chancellor Rhee, but I plead not guilty to flaunting it in this case. I didn't think Rhee was relevant to this story, but the fine editor at the magazine handling this piece did, so I added the reference at her request. I think what I said was accurate. I can see why some would see it as off the point, particularly since I argue that turning schools around may require much more than just having a great principal. Timing and support, both above and below, are also important.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 21, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for recognizing such an outstanding leader and teacher. My two children attended both Patrick Henry ES and Wakefield HS under Dr. Djouadi. Both went on to William & Mary and then to graduate school at UVA and Harvard Medical, respectively. Every Wakefield teacher was highly skilled and highly motivated; and every student was given a great opportunity to earn a fine education. It's just too bad that the facility hasn't been renovated to match the performance of the faculty and staff. Arlington, get busy.

Posted by: jamesatchessie | April 23, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

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