When popularity trumps learning in urban schools
Dunbar High School Principal Stephen Jackson was fired at the end of last school year by the private management group in charge of the school, but put back in the job last week by interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson at the urging of parents, community leaders and teachers.
Jackson seemed an unusually lively and energetic educator when I met him at the long-troubled Northwest Washington school a year ago. He may be the person who can finally straighten Dunbar out.
But the odds are against him, both because of the ingrown nature of the school’s problems, and the dispiriting message Henderson’s decision sends to him and any other school leader she assigns to a low-performing school after this.
Jackson has the support of many teachers and parents, some of whom have written to me. Although they have not commented on the matter, leaving the decision to Henderson, both mayor-elect Vincent Gray and D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. gave indications that they thought Dunbar needed a change from the Friends of Bedford management group. The non-profit company is led by a clever and earnest educator named George Leonard who has a good track record raising the achievement of low-income students in Brooklyn.
Jackson is also getting extra security help — six more police officers and two more officers from the Roving Leaders unit of the Parks and Recreation Department. Leonard said he had been asking for such assistance but it was only approved after the school encountered a series of disruptions, including six students being arrested (the charges were later dropped) for allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl in an unoccupied area of the school. That led to the ouster of Friends of Bedford and the return of Jackson, whom Leonard said he fired for not pushing improvements in teaching.
If Jackson and Henderson can organize the new security force properly, they might find a way to remove the scourge of D.C. high schools — a stubborn culture of absenteeism, tardiness and wandering the halls during class. In a new book, famous East Los Angeles principal Henry Gradillas describes how he ordered teachers to lock their doors at the start of each period and used counseling, detention and transfers to wear down or, if necessary, remove the students rounded up each day for not being in class. That created an atmosphere in which his efforts to raise achievement began to work.
A concerted effort by Jackson and his team at Dunbar might have the same result, but it remains to be seen whether Henderson, the new mayor and the D.C. Council are willing to provide the necessary resources, and ignore complaints from parents and lawyers of the most disruptive students when they are transferred involuntarily to other schools, or expelled.
I have been communicating with Laura Johnson and Jessica Lilly, the two Dunbar math teachers who described their dissatisfaction with the Friends of Bedford to my colleague Bill Turque in his story Sunday. I have also heard from another staffer who supported Leonard's team for holding "teachers accountable for our student's failing academic performance." The staffer said "leaders are making decisions based on politics and not what is best for these students." The staffer asked not to be identified because of warnings that Friends of Bedford supporters might be fired. I very much doubt that is the case, but such misimpressions will hurt efforts to move forward.
Under their contract, the Friends of Bedford are still running a second school, Coolidge High. The school climate there has apparently improved in a building better designed for order. This sets up a competition between Dunbar and Coolidge — which will have the quietest campus and the most improved academic achievement at the end of the school year?
A key fact is that Friends of Bedford produced by far the greatest gains in reading proficiency last year of any D.C. high school. Dunbar went from 18.2 to 31.9 percent and Coolidge from 38 to 53.6 percent. Given that Friends of Bedford were removed from Dunbar despite that record, any new school leaders, including Jackson, must assume that raising achievement will not be enough to keep their jobs. They must reduce the daily disruptions caused by a general reluctance to take harsh measures and the fact that D.C. high schools, their enrollments shriveled by an exodus of students to the suburbs and charter schools, have many empty classrooms and other hiding places.
If principals can’t keep order, their only alternative is to do whatever will make them popular in the community — whether it helps learning or not — so they will not be blamed for the disorder.
Henderson says this is not true. She is a good person. She might be right. But it doesn’t look that way to me.
| December 12, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories: Metro Monday | Tags: Dunbar High School, Friends of Bedford, Stephen Jackson, but his reinstallment also sends the message that being popular is more important than helping learning, new Dunbar principal has chance to save school
Save & Share: Previous: Jay vs. Valerie: Who needs Teach For America?
Next: Can city schools compete with the suburbs?
Posted by: edlharris | December 12, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: researcher2 | December 13, 2010 6:03 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mport84 | December 13, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | December 13, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: lacy41 | December 13, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: missboo | December 13, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 13, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: researcher2 | December 13, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: incredulous | December 13, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 13, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: guylady201001 | December 13, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: researcher2 | December 13, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 13, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: craigspinks | December 13, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 14, 2010 5:32 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mport84 | December 14, 2010 6:40 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 14, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: mport84 | December 14, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 14, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mport84 | December 14, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: efavorite | December 14, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: POLOinDC | December 15, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: realistic6 | December 15, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: phoss1 | December 16, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse