Raising school achievement isn't enough - D.C. principals must also keep order

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 5:58 PM

Dunbar High School Principal Stephen Jackson was fired at the end of the last school year by the private management group in charge of the school but put back in the job last week by interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson at the urging of parents, community leaders and teachers. Jackson seemed an unusually lively and energetic educator when I met him at the long-troubled Northwest Washington school a year ago. He may be the person who can finally straighten Dunbar out.

But the odds are against him because of the ingrown nature of the school's problems and the dispiriting message Henderson's decision sends to him and any other school leader she assigns to a low-performing school after this.

Jackson has the support of many teachers and parents, some of whom have written to me. Although they have not commented on the matter, leaving the decision to Henderson, Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. have indicated that they thought Dunbar needed a change from the Friends of Bedford, led by George Leonard, who has a good track record in raising the achievement of low-income students in Brooklyn.

Jackson is also getting extra security help - six more police officers and two more officers from the Roving Leaders unit of the Parks and Recreation Department. Leonard said he had been asking for such assistance, but it was approved only after the school faced a series of disruptions, including six students being arrested (the charges were later dropped) and accused of raping a 15-year-old girl in an unoccupied area of the school. That led to the ouster of Friends of Bedford and the return of Jackson, whom Leonard said he fired for not pushing improvements in teaching.

If Jackson and Henderson can organize the new security force properly, they might find a way to remove the scourge of D.C. high schools - a stubborn culture of absenteeism, tardiness and wandering the halls during class. In a new book, East Los Angeles principal Henry Gradillas describes how he ordered teachers to lock their doors at the start of each period and used counseling, detention and transfers to wear down or, if necessary, remove the students rounded up each day for not being in class. That created an atmosphere in which his efforts to raise achievement began to work.

A concerted effort by Jackson and his team might have the same result, but it remains to be seen whether Henderson, the new mayor and the D.C. Council will be willing to provide the necessary resources and ignore complaints from parents and lawyers of the most disruptive students when they are transferred involuntarily to other schools or expelled.

Under its contract, the Friends of Bedford is still running Coolidge High. The school climate there has apparently improved in a building better designed for order. This sets up a competition between Dunbar and Coolidge. Which will have the quietest campus and the most improved academic achievement at the end of the school year?

Friends of Bedford produced the greatest gains in reading proficiency last year of any D.C. high school. Dunbar increased from 18.2 to 31.9 percent and Coolidge from 38 to 53.6 percent. Any new school leaders must now assume that raising achievement will not be enough to keep their jobs. They must reduce the daily disruptions caused by a reluctance to take harsh measures and the fact that D.C. high schools, their enrollments shriveled by an exodus of students to the suburbs and charter schools, have many empty classrooms.

If principals can't keep order, their only alternative is to do whatever will make them popular in the community - whether it helps learning or not - so they will not be blamed for the disorder.

Henderson says this is not true. She is a good person. She might be right. But it doesn't look that way to me.

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