Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Woodrow Wilson's New Principal Talking Tough

New Woodrow Wilson principal Peter J. Cahall says he intends to shape the Tenleytown school into "the model urban high school in the United States."

The former Montgomery County principal and administrator makes no secret of what he regards as his first priority. "We have to establish law and order," he said in an interview yesterday. "The adults have to be in charge."

That wasn't always the case last year at Wilson, where fights and assaults caused Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to intervene and briefly confine students to eating boxed lunches in their classrooms. They later responded by streaming onto the football field in protest.

Cahall, 44, a one-time wrestling coach who stands 6'4" and-a-half and sports a Fenty-style shaven head, has no trouble projecting authority. He said he is starting with a revamped dress code that includes no hats, no visible undergarments, nor T-shirts with obscenities.

When students are suspended they are more likely to serve out the time in school or at an off-site location where they can continue their schoolwork. Sending kids home is no answer, he said.

"A lot of suspensions are two-to-five day vacations. They stay home and watch Jerry Springer and run the streets."

And seniors can forget about cruising to graduation. "Seniors have had too much slack here," he said.

Cahall had the most withering words for his faculty. Some, he said, "come here to retire," bringing an arrive-late, leave-early mentality. When he took over from Jacqueline Williams this summer he found the school's counseling department in disarray, with students scheduled for classes this fall that made no sense. One, for example, was signed up for French 2 after having taken French 3 and 4. Cahall said he and his staff, which includes two new assistant principals from Montgomery County, have spent considerable time untangling the scheduling problems.

A personnel matter he flatly refused to discuss was the dismissal of Dr. Art Siebens, the popular AP biology teacher. He was one of about a dozen faculty let go in the school's mandated restructuring under the federal No Child Left Behind law. His departure has sparked a petition drive by students and parents.

One early signal from Cahall that it will not be business as usual: Teacher parking spaces, traditionally alloted by seniority, will now be first-come-first serve. He said one veteran has already complained that it means she'll have to arrive before 8 a.m.

"What a novel idea," Cahall said.

Cahall might also encourage them to consult a dictionary now and then. While giving D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) a school tour, he brought her briefly into a senior staff meeting, where sheets of paper were magic markered with the apparent products of a brainstorming session. They included "expecations" and "consistancy."
Cahall said he could have stayed in Montgomery County, where he was also offered a high school principalship. But this is where he wants to be, even at what he said was a $16,000 a year pay cut.

"This place is a goldmine," Cahall said, "with the right systems and support."

Bill Turque

By Marcia Davis  |  August 12, 2008; 12:32 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Schwartz and Mara in a Tight Money Race, Too
Next: Fenty to Release Report on Summer Jobs Program



Posted by: Tasha | August 12, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I support Mr. Cahall's objective, but I fail to see how the dismissal of one of DC's best teachers (as objectively demonstrated by his students' stellar results over the long-term) can do anything but undermine his efforts.

Dr. Art Siebens' instruction was a part of Wilson and DCPS that actually WORKED, and worked very well.

Posted by: citizenw | August 12, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Great! I hope that this sets a precedent among principals at other schools. Chancelor Rhee is doing a good job so far in my book. Set the bar high enough for people to have to reach, the same goes for the students. Principles that don't demand respect won't get it. That goes for anyone. Low expectations are the bane of 90's.

Posted by: K. Bryant | August 12, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

So with all the politics in DC and all the PC police and all the crybabies, this guy will last how long? Two weeks? If this guy is still in his position in two years, then I'll start to believe DC is on its way back.

Posted by: Tenley | August 12, 2008 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Hurray for Principal Cahall! Sounds like the Wilson I attended in early 1950's!!!

Posted by: Judy Herman | August 12, 2008 3:44 PM | Report abuse

I had a cousin who graduated from WHS last year and I swear it looked like he was going to the club every morning. Pants sagging, shoestrings not tied and fake silver chains all around his neck. It was more of a fashion show than learning. A friend of mine is thinking about enrolling his daughter at WHS and after seeing this article I'll let him know that WHS has a new principal that's not buying the BS attitude anymore....

Posted by: Erick | August 12, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

This is a wonderful article about Wilson SHS. It is good to see that auspicious changes are being made and that the corrosion of the previously tolerated work-ethic is being purged. How in “god’s” name can any teacher arrive late and leave early? We barely have enough time to lesson plan, lecture, and evaluate student’s written work, let alone crop the tour-of duty of barely six hours. I never understood the mentality of ‘settling’ until retirement. If the teachers are not going to work hard at enlightening the youth, who is going to do it? Can you imagine if everyone arrived late and departed early? Oh, hold up…we don’t have to imagine. We have witnessed it for the past several decades. And, please, don’t let me start with this ”seniority” parking nuisance. The entitlement that seniority brought is insulting. They were lucky I did not work at Wilson, as I would have targeted each and every ‘entitled’ parking spot with my early arrivals and late departures.

On another note, I just hope that the new principal of Wilson will receive appropriate assistance from his immediate supervisors. My experience with the assistant superintendants was that they do not do enough of field work of quality control and are almost invisible in the local schools. Frankly, some do not even show up for damage-control until it is too late. Apparently, supervision by-proxy, or also commonly called depraved indifference, is their way of conducting school monitoring.

Good luck, Mr. Cahall. I wish you a great school year at Wilson.

Posted by: inickdc | August 12, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Wasn't there corporal punishment in the '50s? I'm not a fan.

Cahall sounds pretty stubborn..."flatly refused to discuss was the dismissal of Dr. Art Siebens"...??? These kids need intelligent teachers, not a drill sargent.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 12, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Siebens was a successful teacher because he taught a small, exclusive group of smart students directly to the test.

Posted by: citizenv | August 12, 2008 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I am also a Wilson HS alumnus and was appaulled to hear what was going on there over the last school year. I was in a meeting with a new client, in Baltimore City, when during conversation he acknowledged living in the Wilson school district and what had been happening within the student body, resulting from the caliber of student allowed to fester within the confines of the campus. It appeared that it wasn't scholastic business as usual to me. During my tenure Mr. Jackson and Mr Durso ran the campus methodically and we as students were expected to excel. It seems that this will occur again under Mr Cahall, let's see what the scorecard is after this school year is over.

I don't know how the system became so broken, but I do like what appears to be happening now and I applaud Mr Cahall going in to take my alma matta back, making it what I remember, "A Learning Institution"

Posted by: Ken H | August 12, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the dismissed teacher, administrators can be in a really bad spot when it comes to personnel issues. There may be a very good reason for removing someone, but privacy laws, collective bargining agreements, pending litigation and other rules restrict what the administrator can say. One side gets to tell their side of the story while the other has their hands tied, which makes a dismisal seem like an outrage when there may in fact be sound reasons for getting rid of someone. There is probably a lot more than meets the eye, but unfortunately, Mr. Cahall and others are probably forbidden to share it, so it goes down as 'refusing to comment.'

Posted by: shank | August 12, 2008 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Would love for Cahall to be successful in this endeavor.

Note to author/editor: I suggest not being snippy about misspellings on flipchart paper; it's difficult to spell properly when you're two inches away from the paper and can't see the word in its entirety. Besides, the author wrote that it was a "brainstroming" session.

Posted by: Joan S | August 12, 2008 4:50 PM | Report abuse

I work for DCPS and my children went to Wilson. My husband went there a few years ago to meet with a teacher and was totally shocked that there was open marijuana smoking by students outdoors on the school grounds. The discipline had gone down so awfully after Dr. Bonner left. And before her, there was Mr. Durso, also excellent.
About the teacher who was allegedly let go. He wasn't. Wilson was under federally mandated restructuring, as were several other schools in DCPS because they didn't meet AYP for 5 years in a row. Teachers had to re-apply for their jobs. The teacher mentioned was not re-hired. There is a difference.
Oh, and by the way. At my school, many of us get to school way before the contractually mandated sign in time of 8:00. A lot of dedicated teachers throughout DCPS arrive early and leave late to better prepare lessons, meet with students or parents, grade papers or organize our classrooms.

Posted by: Sasha | August 12, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

1st let's get to the facts. the atmosphere at Wilson changed due to a blunder by the Rhee administration. 18 and 19 year old 9th graders were never allowed in Wilson. somehow Rhee and her crew did not know better. Some how they were placed there last year. no one spoke to that aspect. Traditionally, people send their kids to Wilson from all over the City for a safe environment and to avoid such madness.

The kids having to eat lunch in their home room class was a childish response in lieu of policing (literally and figuratively)the offending students. What good is the MPD/Hawk One security contract if they can't even be lunchroom monitors?

Lastly, I give this guy 1 semester. He can play the law and order game all he wants, but he is not going to play it with the upper NW kids or the kids zoned to Wilson. When he doesn't play it with them, he can't play it with the out of boundary kids either. kids are not foolish and blind to the reality of bias. white kids, black kids, latino kids, girls and boys ewear their pants hanging off thier butt these days. I can't wait until that inicident blows up.

This guy sounds like the same one that was at Eastern a year or so ago. He was an ex-marine if i recall correctly snatching hats off kids heads. The principal got into 3 to 4 fights with students in the 1st semester alone.

DC and DCPS are not law and order type places. The approach is going to fail. He can go ahead and keep embarrassing his teachers with misspelled words. As soon as he has one misstep, his job will be on the line thanks to those same teachers. I've seen it in DCPS. there are people in Wilson right now checking every reference and job he ever reported on his resume. if he embellished anything on there, they will find it. if he had any investigation or allegation against him from DUI to sex harassment they will find it. Turning down $16k more and a better school system wasn't the most logical choice to me.

Posted by: OKNOW101 | August 12, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Spelling is important, especially if something is posted. Such mistakes at one of the best high schools in DC (my G-d, what are the worse ones like) is not acceptable. These errors in something posted for all to see needed to have been fixed. And btw, it's alma mater from the Latin meaning I forgot what.

Posted by: Sasha | August 12, 2008 5:01 PM | Report abuse

A teacher complains about arriving before 8am? I am shocked. I thought Wilson was the best public high school in DC along with Banneker. I can't believe the teachers there are that lazy.

Posted by: dcp | August 12, 2008 5:13 PM | Report abuse

The number of students who left Art Siebens' classes to go directly to top colleges in biology-related subjects, and graduated from those top colleges to successful careers in biology-related subjects belies your assertion. As does the large number of testimonials from students who took his classes who were NOT focused on biology, either before or after, but who agree that he was one of their most successful and inspiring high school teachers. The facts are incontrovertible.

Posted by: citizenW | August 12, 2008 5:19 PM | Report abuse

"About the teacher who was allegedly let go. He wasn't. Wilson was under federally mandated restructuring, as were several other schools in DCPS because they didn't meet AYP for 5 years in a row. Teachers had to re-apply for their jobs. The teacher mentioned was not re-hired. There is a difference."

PoTayto, PoTahto. The net result is the inexplicable loss of one of DC's best teachers ... and I'm far from alone in that opinion. The NCLB and similar initiatives are intended to weed out the UNSUCCESSFUL teachers, not the MOST successful.

Posted by: CitizenW | August 12, 2008 5:40 PM | Report abuse


Alma Mater is Latin for "Nourishing Mother"

Posted by: CitizenW | August 12, 2008 5:48 PM | Report abuse

"The number of students who left Art Siebens' classes to go directly to top colleges in biology-related subjects, and graduated from those top colleges to successful careers in biology-related subjects belies your assertion."

No, it doesn't. I'm arguing not only that he taught only to the test, but also that he only took the students he knew would do well -- i.e., the ones who were already going to go to top colleges. It's easier to get consistently good scores when you severely limit the sample size to the ones who you know will do well. It takes a more special teacher to try to educated students who may not be heading for the ivy league.

And I'm not sure that anecdotal evidence from a couple dozen students proves your argument. I'm not saying he was a bad teacher, but the facts are far from incontrovertible.

Posted by: citizenV | August 12, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Of course I knew that mater is mother, but alma is soul in Spanish so I got confused. The term alma mater of course refers to the school where one studied.
Anyway, when Adams ES closed two years ago to be taken over by Oyster ES' upper grades, very few of the Adams teachers were picked up by Oyster. Truesdell ES and Clark ES were restructured (the former) and closed (the latter) at the end of this school year. Many of the Clark students were to go to a reconstructed Truesdell, which would be led by Clark's former principal, hand-picked by Rhee. Both Clark and Truesdell teachers had to be interviewed for a new Truesdell. Some of Truesdell's teachers were selected to continue, but very few of the Clark teachers were. When a school gets restructured, teachers run the risk of not being kept by the school. It is a very ugly business, as is not making AYP for 5 years in a row.
Under a memo of understanding, those teachers, including (I believe) the Wilson teacher mentioned above, would be placed elsewhere in DCPS. Parents, keep fighting and speak with Rhee. She is extremely accessible and is quick to answer emails.

Posted by: Sasha | August 12, 2008 6:05 PM | Report abuse

When I worked downtown the Wilson students transfering from the red line were the most unbeliveable bunch of kids. They , and I mean the boys AND the girls, cursed like sailors, ran around the station platform bumping into other passengers and generally acted like street thugs rather than high school students. Not all the students were like this but enough were to make me skip a train when a lot of them got on it. The Metro police can't enforce manners. I once witness them arresting a young girl. I didn't see what she did but she was fighting the police, rolling on the ground, kicking and screaming at the police and cursing like a sailor. Other students formed a circle around the officers cursing and yelling.

Posted by: Big Jim | August 12, 2008 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Those nastyass Wilson kids are going to fun his 6'4" arse out of town in a New York minute.

Posted by: Wilson HS Hater | August 12, 2008 7:44 PM | Report abuse

I went to Wilson Hight back in the 90's. The kids were into sniffing glue and gasoline during chemistry lab. One time I saw boys spitting into each other's milk and then drinking it. A friend brought me to the boys' room, where girls were using the urinals and hanging out while shooting bam and deladid.

Posted by: Wilson Graduate | August 12, 2008 7:58 PM | Report abuse

If Wilson is that bad, imagine what Roosevelt, Coolidge, Cardozo, Woodson, Easter, SPingarn, Anacostia and Ballou are like. I pity those teachers.

Posted by: Chloe | August 12, 2008 9:15 PM | Report abuse

I am the coordinator of the Reinstate Dr. Art Siebens campaign.
I wanted to report that the Washington Teachers' Union has filed grievances on behalf of three Wilson faculty, including Dr. Siebens. Dr Siebens and his supporters are withholding public comment in the hope that he may be restored to his classroom.

Dr. Siebens said that he welcomes Mr. Cahall's plan "to establish law and order" and his policy that "the adults [are] in charge." He told me, "Wilson teachers have been demanding this policy for years. It is wonderful to know that it will finally become reality."

For further information, please visit the online petition published by former students of Dr. Siebens who testified before the DC Council at:

and visit our website:

Posted by: Paul Mahon | August 12, 2008 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Siebens has taught all levels of students and has inspired his advanced placement biology students to do well on the AP exams. If this is a bad thing, then woe be to any teacher who has students who excel.

I don't think you'd fire a coach who consistently had winning seasons because he was able to get the varsity team to do its best.

Posted by: Wilson Fan | August 12, 2008 10:20 PM | Report abuse

If this principal is that great, why didn't Rhee send him to Anacostia or Dunbar or Ballou or a truly needy school. This is yet another example of how Rhee and her team favor the west of the park schools. It started with Oyster and then Deal and now Wilson. Clearly white and privileged speaks loudest.

Posted by: concernedresident | August 12, 2008 10:28 PM | Report abuse

You simply cannot/cannot/cannot let the inmates and their enablers (parents) to run the facility. Wishing all the best to Cahall. He's gonna need it to reign in the scumbag element who are used to having their way.

Posted by: Tupac Goldstein | August 12, 2008 11:37 PM | Report abuse

I applaud Mr. Cahall for his efforts and I hope he restores Wilson to the elite SHS it was when I went attended the school. Unfortunately, this climate is not about change and order its about following someone's plan. the moment he disagree with Rhee or Fenty they will find a way to get rid of him. As for the fired Biology teach, he hsould be re-hired and given a raise. If the kids and the parents love him he is doing a great job.

Posted by: CLASS of '77' | August 13, 2008 6:58 AM | Report abuse

Wilson elite, my a**. Just because it's located in upper northwest where houses sell for over a million doesn't mean that neighborhood kids (meaning white, let's be honest) actually attend. Those families for the most part have abandoned the school long ago due to poor discipline, mediocre academics and the ghetto riff raff currently enrolled and whose metro station misbehavior and classroom antics are posted above. Wilson probably has less than 25% white enrollment in an area that's probably 90% white. What does that tell you? If you have money, your kid is in a private school and not at Wilson, even if it's your neighborhood high school.

Posted by: Chloe | August 13, 2008 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I am so saddened that a school like this was named after me. I would rather the League of Nations go down in flames and WWI never ended before such a school were allowed to exist, much less with MY NAME attached to it!

Posted by: Woodrow Wilson | August 13, 2008 10:09 PM | Report abuse

I wish Mr. Cahall and his team the best with such a large task at Wilson.

As for the teacher who was released. My questions are: of the the students who were successful and are protesting how many are Black, or Latino? How many of them did he discourage from taking his class because he thought they lacked the skills.

Great teachers are willing to teach and reach all students, not just the white students, who have parents who have played and active role in their education.

When are we going to start doing what is right for kids who have no guidance and no goals that will lead to no future.

I think any teacher not willing to teach all students should be let go. If he only wants to teach the upper crust he needs to go to a school disrict that is comprised of the upper crust.

Posted by: Say No to Siebens and Yes to Improving Wilson | August 15, 2008 7:46 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company