Jay Mathews: A tough principal helps make a great school

Under Doris Jackson, Wakefield High has won national honors for achievement.
Under Doris Jackson, Wakefield High has won national honors for achievement. (Courtesy Of Doris B. Jackson)
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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

When Doris Jackson, a former guidance counselor known for her warmth, replaced tough-minded Marie Djouadi as principal of Wakefield High School in 2002, some people assumed that school problems would henceforth always be handled with a soft voice and a warm embrace. They were wrong.

Chris Willmore, the assistant principal who is about to succeed her, recalls Jackson seeing a student throwing rocks at a window when he should have been in class. "You better be waiting for me in my office when I get there," she said. He was, still full of attitude. When his parents arrived, Jackson had had enough. She got close to the boy and said: "There is only ONE principal at Wakefield, and that is me, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon." She told his parents to start looking for a new school. Instead, he stayed, became a student leader and, last time anyone checked, was in college studying to be a teacher.

Jackson, one of the nation's most imaginative and resourceful principals, has that effect on people. Staff members at Wakefield with fresh ideas -- not always welcome in U.S. public schools -- soon found themselves running the programs they had designed, turning the Arlington County school into a wellspring of innovation. This was a startling contrast to what people expected from such a school. Half of the students are low-income. The ethnic mix is 47 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black, 15 percent white and 11 percent Asian. Its building is a wreck, with an infestation of rodents and burst pipes that flood classrooms.

Despite the school's disadvantages, Jackson has produced one of the highest levels of Advanced Placement test participation in the country -- top 2 percent. Thirty-seven percent of Wakefield seniors have passing scores on those tests, more than twice the national average. Wakefield has reached its federal achievement targets, unusual for a school with so many impoverished students, and also made itself a national model for imaginative instruction, outdoing even the most affluent public schools.

Until recently, it was the only non-magnet public school in the Washington area to require each senior to do a special project -- a paper, an internship, a performance, something personal and deep. As far as I can tell, nobody has yet duplicated its cohort groups -- special clubs for minority students who meet each week to talk about how to deal with the annoyingly demanding teachers Jackson's staff has assigned them. Jackson requires much of ninth-graders and has a special summer program to prepare students for AP. In 2005, Wakefield won one of only three national Inspiration Awards from the College Board for its work preparing students for college. That's why President Obama chose the school for a nationally televised speech last year.

It was hard for me to see at first how Jackson could match her friend and mentor Djouadi, who pulled Wakefield out of a deep slump, but she did that and more. PTA President Rosie O'Neil recalled a scene from last winter: mice from some deteriorating corner of the Wakefield building scampering between classrooms, science students screaming, testing disrupted, staff running with brooms, and the principal at the scene calm and smiling, issuing instructions, a cool general in the midst of battle.

She is one reason fundraising has soared. The school scholarship foundation has more than $1 million, including a new scholarship named for her. It is hard to tell what such an idea magnet will do with her retirement, but it is likely to be something no one has done before.

For more Jay, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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