Conrad Smith, president of the D.C. Board of Education, was walking down Georgia Avenue last May when he looked across the street at Banneker Junior High School.
In the schoolyard teen-agers were rolling joints of marijuana and getting high, Smith said. About 20 students were talking, posturing and joking on the school steps, boys rapping to girls, girls gossiping. On the other side of Banneker students were hundled together "gambling, shooting craps, dice," for a pile of change as the president of the school board went by. And around the corner of the building, Smith said, about 30 students were swapping stories and lazing around as the school day drifted past.
Months later, Smith's face grew tense, creasing into angry arrow tipshaped lines above his eyes, as he recalled that afternoon. He said the scene depicted the problems at the heart of the D.C. schools.
"The first thing you have to do to make a school work is to get the kids inside the school," he said.
Smith went to a phone and summoned an official from the office of the assistant superintendent in charge of the area Banneker is located in, to see for himself what was taking place at the school.
The next day, Smith said, Banneker's principal, William A. Birchette 3rd, was replaced and demoted.
Smith said he wanted Birchette dismissed because principals are the keys to good schools or bad schools. If Banneker is a place for teen-agers to waste the day away, that is the principal's fault Smith said.
Birchette's removal was part of a crackdown that school board members have begun on inept principals, Smith said. Principals at two other District public schools, Kramer and Cardozo, also have been dismissed because of questions about their competence, according to Smith and Superintendent Vincent Reed.
"We want to put the best possible school officers in the most appropriate places," Smith said. "This is something new on the part of the school board. Three or four years ago a great deal of attention was focused on who the superintendent was. But the superintendent is really very remote from what is happening at most schools. We have 189 schools . . . The superintendent is not able to keep an eye onwhat is happening in each and every school."
Other school board members confirmed that they have taken on a new thrust aimed at getting better principals into the schools. The board members said their focus on principals began as a result of dissatisfaction with the high ratings several principals were receiving from Superintendent Reed's office despite problems at school and complains to board members about the principals.
" . . . You might have to look this word up, xenophobia," said school board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8). "They (the superintendent and his staff) have a fear of anyone outside of their office. You see, Reed is a former coach and he thinks like a coach, cliquish. If you're not on our team you're against us. The principals are on his team so he is looking out for them . . ."
In addition to the principals at Banneker, Cardozo and Kramer, six other principals at District schools have been replaced recently. Although Smith said it would not be productive to say if those principals were transferred, dismissed or urged to resign because of doubts about their abilities he acknowledged that "questions about what was going on at the schools" led to the changes. And Smith said some board members had a hand in some of those discharges.
Those six schools are Adams and Lewis elementary schools, Lincoln Junior High, and Eastern, Spingarn and M.M. Washington high schools.
As part of an increasingly active role in judging principals, the board asked Superintendent Reed last January for full access to the records and performance evaluations of all principals. Reed has partly complied with the request, according to board members, by supplying information on any one principal to the board members when it is requested. But the superintendent has not opened the files on all principals to the board.
Several board members said they have made requests to see the principal's records and evaluations because they feel that Reed, a former principal, is not sufficiently critical of principals.
"It should be the thrust of the board and the superintendent to get rid of anyone in the system that isn't competent." Reed said. "If not to remove the person, we should bring to bear the resources to help them improve. It's not my aim to single out any one group for that thrust, it's not my thrust to go after principals and I'm not sure Mr. Smith is speaking for the board when he says that is his intention."
Reed added that some principals have been reassigned in the school system administration and said reassignment is "not necessarily a reduction in status or salary."
School board members do not have the authority to hire or fire principals. But board members said they have been paying more attention to principals in their wards and asking Reed to take steps to get rid of unsatisfactory principals.
The board recently asked Reed to make permanent appointments to principalship at 17 schools in the city that are run by acting principals. In the next 90 days principals will be chosen for those schools.
Board members have final approval of candidates for principalships throughout the city and are on the principal applicant-screening panels in their respective wards.
"The board has not sat down as a board and said we are going to go after principals," said Carol Schwartz, vice president of the board."But different members have had problems with specific principals in their wards . . . We can go into the insuperintendent's office and say keep an eye on such and such a principal because that school is having some problems.
"We can sit up here on the board," said Schwartz, ward 3's representative to the board, "and write the most beautiful policy - like the teacher appraisal policy - but if you don't have a good principals who can implement the policy what we do is null and void."
However, Barbara Lett Simmons, an at-large member of the board and one of Smith's adversaries on the board, characterized Smith's interest in principals as politically motivated.
"He has hatchet men who will do what he wants them to do because he is the school board president and they think they will get promotions if they do what he wants them to," Simmons said.
Simmons charged that Smith's action leading to the appointment of a new principal at Banneker is political because "you can see that (students loitering around the building, smoking marijuana and gambling) at any school in the country."
She said the board has always had an interest in the quality of the principals in the school system and that Smith's interest in principals is similar to "someone who learned about the crucifixion today thinking that it must have happened yesterday."
Simmons said the Parent-Teacher Association at Spingard High School is considering filing suit againt the board because the PTA feels the board, and Smith particularly, have undercut their power in selecting a new principal for the school in order to give the board a larger voice in the selection process.
Shirley O. Brown, president of the Council of School Officers, a union of principals and assistant principals, said three principals who have been removed from their jobs, including Birchette at Banneker, are fighting their dismissals.
"The union hasn't accepted these dismissals as being valid by any means," Brown said.
Brown said the charges against the principals were often based on questionable evidence, such as the students that Smith said he saw around Banneker. Brown called that "unverifiable evidence."
"They say someone saw something," Bronw said. "I don't want to go further into it because I don't want the board to say I argued my case in the papers."
William Birchette, who was demoted from principal of Banneker to an English teacher at Bell Vocational High School, said he feels Smith had him replaced because of politics.
"There is not one bit of documentation or evidence that shows I violated board rules and did not implement board rules," Birchette said in his apartment on 16th Street after a day of teaching a Bell. "It all boils down, in my opinion, to hearsay, personality conflicts and politics. That's the bottom line."
Birchette said he cannot believe that he lost his job because Smith saw teen-agers, who Birchette said may not have been Banneker students, loitering around the school. He said Smith would have had to come into the school to determine the quality of the education at the shool.
Birchette said his job performance ratings inexplicably slipped from outstanding to unsatisfactory during the first two months, of the 1977 school year. And from October 1977 until be was ordered out of Banneker in May 1976, Birchette said, he received letters from the regional superintendent's office dates for his dismissal, long before the day Smith walked past the school.
William Simmons, president of the Washington Teachers Union, which has ben openly critical of administors and principals in many District schools, said some of the dismissals of Principals have improved relations between teachers and administrators.
Simons said he is not concerned that the boards attack on principals may turn to teachers.
"It has been my position all along that anyone who is not doing the job in the proper manner should not be on the payroll," Simons said. ". . . Somehow the notion prevents the board from removing incompetent personnel. That is a ludicrous statment."
At schools where new principals have already been put in place, school board president Smith said, the schools have shown improvement, particularly in the case of Lincoln Junior High.
"At that school," Smith said, "the staff was demoralized. There was constant conflict between the principal and the staff. We had minimal educational activity going on. Then the last year . . . the new principal has been there one full year now as of last month, Mr. Michael Durso.
"He's been there for one year and completely turned that school around, Smith said. "There are no kids in the halls anymore, he's gotten the dope out of the buildings, the classrooms are in good shape. the kids are in the classroom and learning is taking place . . . I thinking parents can be proud of what is going on there now. I think they can see that their children are bringing home homework and learning from competent teachers. That is why the board is now paying more attention to having good school administrators."