When we teachers returned to T.C. Williams High School on Aug. 31 to prepare for the new school year, there was all the usual complaining about the bureaucratic snafus that hadn't been straightened out yet. Trailers to accommodate student overflow weren't ready, the Xerox machine was down, some teacher vacancies still weren't filled. There were no printers to go with our new computers. And on top of all that, the state-of-the-art toilet paper dispenser in the faculty bathroom was so sophisticated no one could figure out how it worked.
Getting the school year off the ground is always an exercise in frustration. But this year, added to the grousing about those mostly fixable problems was some slightly guilty amusement over a much more dramatic malfunction that's been taking place in Alexandria for the last four months. Over that period, the leadership of the Alexandria schools -- Superintendent Rebecca Perry and our nine-member school board -- has gone into a meltdown that's almost as comical as it is distressing. In an odd way, though, it's also reassuring. The chaos at the top has reinforced what many teachers and parents have long believed -- that the needs of schoolchildren and their families are hardly the first priority of education bureaucrats. But it also shows that our so-called educational "leaders" aren't as important as we'd like to think they are.
The saga of superintendent Perry and the fallout from her drunk driving arrest last May and her subsequent guilty plea has delivered a message that could be food for thought for school districts everywhere: We don't need messianic superintendents and charismatic school boards and we should stop looking for them. As long as schools have solid principals, good teachers and a competent support staff, they can do very well. District of Columbia, take note.
The leadership meltdown here started with the school board's decision to keep Perry on -- and even give her a raise -- after her arrest. Perry was pulled over as she was driving home from an Alexandria restaurant, where she had gone after a stormy meeting with parents who were furious at her sudden transfer of their popular elementary school principal. Never have a few drinks caused such an uproar in Alexandria. The situation has gotten so bad that not only are a large number of parents and city officials fed up with Perry and her supporters on the board, but black churches have charged the board with racism for replacing the board's African American vice chairman, who just happened to be the only one who voted to dismiss Perry.
The chaos hasn't been without entertainment value. On the day we returned to school, teachers were chuckling about the recent school board retreat, which featured shouting matches between board members so intense that the chairman decided there'll have to be a re-retreat, this time with an outside referee.
That same morning, at the first faculty meeting in the school auditorium, we were all spectators at a tragicomedy, otherwise known as the superintendent's welcome back speech. It's been customary in the past for the superintendent to appear before some 1,000 school system employees at T.C. Williams on the first day back each year. This year, though, Perry just sent videotapes to each of Alexandria's 17 schools. As I watched her address, I couldn't help feeling sorry for her; she had taken a humiliating public beating over the last few months, and she looked exhausted and sad.
Her speech earned poor marks from my colleagues. "The purpose of a convocation is to bring everyone together and start the year off with some degree of camaraderie," said T.C. physics teacher Myron Hanke, who remembered Perry's address from last year as upbeat and inspiring. "It was an insult to the teachers she's supposed to be leading that she didn't show up in person."
Perry spoke in a monotone, referring to her problems as "a tumultuous series of events" that "appear to be a continuing diversion for those with varying motivations." Then she read a laundry list of school system accomplishments in the previous year. I kept wondering if she really didn't see that, in fact, she's the diversion that has kept the community from focusing on the many good things going on.
As highly educated and professionally accomplished as most of our school board members are, they have failed not only to read the community but to see what so many teachers saw as the easy solution to their problem. The associate superintendent at the time of Perry's arrest was Lois Berlin, who had been in Alexandria for more than 20 years and is one of the savviest, most talented and most highly respected administrators in the Washington area. Had the board dismissed Perry and made Berlin superintendent, it wouldn't have found itself in the embarrassing position it's in now, blaming parents for all the distractions that it and Perry are responsible for. The chairman wouldn't have been reduced to writing letters in local papers asking parents, in effect, the Rodney King question: "Can't we all just get along?" To me, the biggest disappointment in this episode is that we lost Berlin, who recently left to become superintendent of the Falls Church schools.
The whole mess is symptomatic of what keeps Alexandria and so many other school systems from reaching their potential. In keeping Perry, the board acted like a private club, protecting one of its members. Yet tell me if this isn't a double standard: The board's alcohol policy for school athletes is zero tolerance. A starting T.C. Williams football player who was caught by police during the summer with alcohol in his possession was kicked off the team for the year.
The board's reluctance to make a hard decision for the good of the school community and its apparent indifference to top talent like Berlin are deplorable, but typical of what goes on at all levels of the Alexandria school bureaucracy. When I got back to school this year I was surprised to see two particularly ineffective members of one department also returning. Their failure in performing their duties to our students had been documented, but clearly nothing had been done to remove them.
While the marginal staff members are allowed to drift on to retirement, the best teachers are treated as dispensable. Take Erin Fitch, a superb young English teacher and crew coach. Like many of the best and brightest teachers, Fitch was not an education major in college. She had a B.A. and an M.A. in English and three and a half years of teaching experience at the University of Maryland when Alexandria hired her in 2001. She informed the human resources department several times that she wouldn't finish the last of the education courses she needed for certification until this past July, and the department agreed to grant her an exemption and give her a contract to return for her fourth year. Then in June, they fired her, in effect blaming her for not being certified by the end of the school year. Fortunately for T.C., Fitch had kept track of all the correspondence she had had with the department. She pointed out the contradiction in their statements -- and got her contract.
"The hiring process is a fiasco," says Susan Kaput, head of the T.C. math department. "Principals and department heads have an exciting candidate they want to hire, but they have to wait because everything has to go through human resources, which has no sense of urgency about hiring the top people."
Kaput says that at the end of last year, the math department had two vacancies, but human resources did not advertise for one of them until a month after it had been informed of the opening. "They have this defined bureaucratic job and have no connection to the school," says Kaput. "Teachers are just names and numbers to them. We may have to put up with lousy teachers who have tenure, but there is no reason we shouldn't be going after the best young people we can find."
Some of the problem with our current comedy is due to the structure of our system. Eight years ago, Alexandrians -- myself included -- voted to go from an appointed to an elected board, figuring there'd be more accountability that way. The plan hasn't turned out as hoped. Nine members are far too many for a school system of 10,000 students. There's little competition for seats, because few people are willing to go through the ordeal of a political campaign. In the last election, only three people ran in one precinct, so all were elected.
In the previous system, the city council would often recruit people it thought would be effective on the board. With three seats up for reappointment every year, obstructive members could be removed more quickly than under the present system of elections every three years. Some of the board members at the heart of the current turmoil would never have been appointed by the city council. If the board had only appointed members, I doubt they'd be going off on a second retreat.
T.C. math teacher Gary Thomas, a West Point graduate and retired Army colonel, thinks that the board erred in keeping Perry. "If you're an officer in the Army and get a DWI, it's one strike and you're out. People in leadership positions have to be held to a higher standard," he says. But he also doesn't believe that the board's failure to fire Perry is enough to warrant "the hysteria and the rhetoric of personal attack that is going on. We are losing the civil discourse that has served Alexandria well for some time."
It may take a year or more for that civil discourse to come back, but teachers I know aren't worried. Since 1970, when I first started teaching here, there have been six superintendents, some charismatic, some not, all of them competent. But none of them have been half as important as Alexandria's top principals -- people like Cathy David and Margaret Walsh and, most importantly, John Porter, who as T.C.'s principal for the last 20 years has bobbed and weaved to protect his teachers from bureaucratic interference.
That's why last Tuesday we could completely forget the sad saga of our "leaders" and enjoy the sense of renewal that comes each September as new students pour into the classrooms to begin another year.
Author's e-mail: May6dog@aol.com