High Expectations, but No Easy Answers

Principal Thomas Anderson, left, and the Rev. C.J. Blair, who came to the school with other religious leaders and musicians for a motivational event.
Principal Thomas Anderson, left, and the Rev. C.J. Blair, who came to the school with other religious leaders and musicians for a motivational event. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2005

The youthful man with a blue ballpoint pen behind his right ear and walkie-talkie on his belt stood sentinel one morning last week outdoors. Teenagers flowed past: a girl with her nose in a paperback, a boy with a do-rag, a girl with hot-pink beads in her cornrows, a boy with a smirk.

"Why are you smiling?" Thomas Anderson asked.

"Why are you smiling?" the boy shot back, without breaking stride.

" 'Cause I see you," Anderson said, swiveling to keep his eyes on the boy. "You know where all your rooms are?"

The boy slipped inside. No reply. The DuVal High School principal sighed.

"He'll go in this door and go out the back door," Anderson predicted. "He'll end up being marked absent."

It was just before 8:30 a.m., with classes about to start. Soon Anderson would be proved correct, and the habitual truant -- last seen darting around a hallway corner in a futile attempt to escape notice -- would be booted out of school, perhaps for good.

Of many challenges in a low-achieving school, sometimes getting students to class is the hardest. Anderson learned that again this month, when six students were arrested after a school bus fight morphed into a melee. Police used pepper spray and a stun gun in an incident that spun strangely out of control.

Anderson has one of the toughest jobs in education: leader of an urban public high school with nowhere to go but up. High teacher turnover, low test scores, transient students, a reputation -- perhaps overblown -- as a "tough" school, racial achievement gaps, a working-class parent population that can be hard to reach. It's a litany familiar to many principals across the country.

Anderson's vision is nothing flashy: to lift DuVal, student by student, teacher by teacher.

Last year, Anderson left an assistant principal's post at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg to come to Lanham for his first principal's job. Moving from Montgomery County to Prince George's County set him apart. More often, up-and-comers move in the other direction, to the higher-performing and more affluent system. Anderson saw opportunity in this school on Good Luck Road.

He was 33 when he arrived, unusually young for a demanding job that pays a bit more than $100,000 a year. Now just shy of 35, Anderson is settling in as the leader of 135 teachers and staff members and 1,607 students. "But I don't know how really settled you ever feel," he said. "There's always something."


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