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The Fixer: Former Wakefield High principal Marie Shiels Djouadi works to improve other schools

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By Jay Mathews
Sunday, April 11, 2010

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.

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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.


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