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D.C. principal finds comfort in job after colleague's slaying

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; B01

Peter Cahall and Brian Betts were recruited in the same year from Montgomery County to help D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in her ambitious overhaul of the city's troubled education system. More than that, the two principals -- Cahall oversees Woodrow Wilson High School, Betts was in charge of Shaw Middle School -- were good friends.

So when Betts sent a frazzled invitation by text message last Wednesday afternoon, Cahall did not pass it up lightly. It's been a tough week with the students, the message from Betts said. Can we grab dinner and talk about it?

But school commitments, as they often did, came first. Cahall, who was at the airport with a school group on the way to a competition, told Betts to keep his focus. And Betts, according to a Facebook update he posted at 6:45 that evening, settled for an evening of "grilling out having a cocktail." Neighbors have said they saw Betts in his back yard that evening.

The run of terrible news that came after the seemingly ordinary exchange of text messages has left Cahall shaken. Betts, 42, was found shot to death in his home the next day. Two days after the killing, one of Cahall's teachers reported that she was allegedly abducted by one of her students and another man.

"It's been a tough week," he said in an interview Tuesday, sinking low in his chair in an office decorated with photographs of past students.

The bizarre spasm of violence, along with an operatic series of developments in the progress of the teachers' contract last week, has teachers and administrators taking a deep breath when their phones ring, worried about what might be waiting for them next.

"Honestly, if it weren't for the kids and the staff, I don't know what I'd do," Cahall said.

On Thursday night, while he was in Atlanta with Wilson's robotics team, Cahall received the call from a D.C. school administrator whom both Betts and he knew from Montgomery. "There was lots of emotions. It was surreal," Cahall said. Then Rhee called him from the sidewalk in front of Betts's house.

Cahall cut his trip short and came home on Saturday morning. Later that day, he got the call from the abducted teacher, who had escaped her attackers with minor injuries.

"I just felt, what is this world coming to?" he said.

Through it all, life has carried on at the school. The robotics team made it back after winning a few rounds of the competition. On Monday morning, Cahall went over encouraging results from a crackdown on tardiness that has the number of students who arrive late to school down almost two-thirds in just two weeks.

At the meeting, "I warned the teachers that I might be welling up a little" as they went over the results, Cahall said, with Betts still fresh in his mind.

On Tuesday morning, the school held a pep rally first thing, right before students and teachers settled in for DC-CAS testing, which is being administered this week and next. Rhee views the exams as a key measure of progress.

She praised Cahall's efforts Tuesday.

In years past at Wilson, "some kids were getting a great education," Rhee said, "but overall it was still a place where there was a lot of work that needed to be done."

When Cahall arrived at Wilson at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, not a single clock worked in the building, he said. Since then, he has worked to spiff up the school -- it will get a top-to-bottom renovation next year -- and has replaced about 40 percent of the staff.

He did away with requiring teacher recommendations to put students in Advanced Placement classes, instead relying on test data to predict which students might benefit from the challenge. He has pushed hard to improve the achievement of African American and Latino students, half of whom earn less than a 2.0 grade-point average.

His efforts appear to be drawing students to the school. Transfers from private and charter schools have spiked, administrators said. And 345 students applied for the 120 seats in the school's competitive admission programs for the coming school year.

Cahall has worked to build relationships with students, walking the hallways as students change classes with a timer clipped to his black polo shirt to track how much time they have to get to their next classroom. He shakes and slaps hands and gives out hugs, his 6-foot-4 frame towering over the students.

On Tuesday, he sometimes paused to take a deep breath and collect himself. "I know that it's not just me," he said. "I've got a team, I've got a school community."

Rhee said the human tragedy of the week helped her put other challenges in perspective.

"We all get caught up in the day-to-day and the politics and the mess," she said. "One of the things I'm sorriest about is that I spoke to Brian [Betts] last week, and I didn't say to him, 'Gosh, you're doing such a great job, and I really appreciate all that you're doing.' "

That message, she said, is something she passed along Monday to all the principals in the city.

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