For weeks there has been anticipation at Eastern High School. Anticipation among the students who smoke marijuana in the third floor restroom, anticipation in the troubled classrooms where many of the students read on the sixth grade level or lower, and anticipation among teachers who are hoping for change.
Finally last week Eastern got its first permanent principal in more than three years.
Dennis L. Jackson arrived at Eastern Thursday to become principal of the big, red-brick school on East Capitol Street, near RFK Stadium. Jackson, who graduated from Eastern in 1961, has a reputation as a "tough guy," according to the talk among students in the restroom -- "Yeah, a disciplinarian or whatever."
Jackson said he wants to bring discipline to the school as he tries to bring to life the memory of the school he left nearly two decades ago.
"When I was there Lynn F. Woodworth was the principal," Jackson said in an interview shortly before becoming principal at Eastern. "And I think I'd like to get back to some of his ideas. He believed that a student should work hard and through achievement would come self-worth and self-value."
As Jackson begins at Fastern he faces problems typical of those at this city's senior high schools. According to the most recent acadmic tests that have been made public, Eastern ranks about in the middle of high schools in the city -- above such high schools as Spingarn, Woodson and Cardozo; below such high schools as McKinley, Wilson and The Schools Without Walls.
Last school year, when a reporter spent three months at Eastern, he saw clusters of students lounging in the hallways of the schllo daily to smoke marijuana or throw dice in a staircase game of craps. In classrooms some students could not read and most students read on such a low level that high school classes had to be conducted on the level of elementary or junior high courses elsewhere in the nation.
When the reporter returned briefly to Eastern recently this school year, teachers and administrators said the problems had gotten worse. Now 65 students, about 20 more than last year, read on about the first grade level or cannot read at all. The 10th graders who entered Eastern this school year were so poorly prepared that the average reading level at the school dropped even lower, to about the sixth grade level, according to several teachers.
Enrollment also has dropped sharply this year. About 1,750 students started this school year, about 200 fewer than last year. Teachers and assistant principal Raymond Hammond said the school is losing students each week, but estimates of current enrollment are not available publicly.
Hammond and teachers said that more students are cutting classes this year and that a growing number of students do not appear on Mondays and Fridays.
"These kids know what's going on," said fHammond as he discussed the rising absenteeism and declining enrollment. "They know the school is old, the equipment is old, we don't have enough books. They know there is no way they are getting a good education to get an established job so they just decide, to hell with it, and drop out. They'll live by their wits...
"Black kids learn at an early age to keep quiet, don't say anything, just deal with the situation... its just lkie a prison law that they all know.And they come here every day and they see what's going on.Adults make the mistake of thinking they don't know."
In an effort to deal with absenteeism, Eva Rousseau, who was the acting principal at the school this fall, instituted a policy of mandating a failing grade for any student who cut more than six classes in a nine-week grading period. Several teachers theorized that the policy may have backfired, however, and caused even more students to drop out because once they missed six classes the students decided it would be useless to keep going to school.
In addition, said Hammond, the school has a new problem with teachers who have generally lost their enthusiasm because they feel that the two acting principals at Eastern in the last three years have not felt fully in charge of the school because of their temporary status. The leadership void was made painfully clear, according to teachers, when one acting principal left last September to become head of public relations for the school system and another acting principal took her place.
As Eastern awaited Jackson's arrival last week three of its four assistant principals also had acting status.
"Limbo." is the word most often used by teachers to describe the situation.
"It's been three or four years since we've had a permanent principal," asid Wayne Paige, a drafting teacher at the school. "I don't know if this would have happened in any other school system. It's the parents fault, really. They aren't interested. They should be downtown asking why did we have an acting principal for three years and then, when she left, another acting principal."
An added burden for the troubled school is that five teachers are scheduled to leave the school, including a yound English teacher, Teresa Suter, who this year began a class for students with severe reading problems.
The students in Suters' class said they feel "bitter," and "abandoned," about the decision "downtown," at school system headquarters to transfer Suter, a decision that will mean an end to their special class.
"I want to know why they waited this late to transfer her after she got us started," said a senior who is in Suter's class for students who read on about the first grade level.
"What really kills me is that they are doing it in the middle of the school year when it disrupts everything," said Paulette Prattis, an English teacher who has been told that she might be transferred. "For five teachers you are talking about, maybe, 400 students who will have to change classes. But the absolute worse is what will happen to the kids in Suter's class."
"They are taking some of the best teachers," said John Skehan, who teaches a remedial reading class that caters to students who can read on about the third grade level. (Students who can read on the fifth or sixth grade level are in regular classes at Eastern.)
"They (the teachers who are to be transferred) have a lot of enthusiasm for the job," Skehan said, "and now they are gone. I'm convinced this isn't an educational system. It is a bureaucracy."
The five teachers are being transferred as part of a school systemwide effort to keep an equal ratio of students to teachers at high schools throughout the city.
Winner explained that because Eastern enrollment has dropped the teachers must be transferred so that its pupil-teacher ratio is not out of line with other schools in the system. Suter said she has been told that she is to be reassigned to Coolidge High. Enrollment declined at Coolidge this year also but not as sharply as at Eastern.
According to Gloria Adams, the director of public relations for the school system and a former acting principal of Eastern, the teachers affected by the transfer are chosen according to their academic department. The school principal, Adams said, decides which departments can stand to lose teachers and teachers in the department who have the least senority are the ones transferred.
When School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed was informed about the situation late yesterday he said he will personally act "as the superintendent," to insure that the class is not canceled.
"That class will not be disbanded," Reed said from Houston where he is attending an international conference of secondary principals. "A teacher will be placed in there to continue with that reading class, I'm telling you that right now. I'm sick and tired of dealing with these crisis situations because some administrator down the line makes a decision without informing me... the decision to cut that class was an administrative decision and what makes me mad is that it will look like because teachers are being taken out of there that class is being disbanded. That's not true..."
Jackson will be facing other problems at Eastern that are affecting the entire city school system:
Book shortage. Eastern and many other schools in the city have a critical shortage of books. At Eastern students in some modern biology classes are using mimeographed sheets to study from or groups of about five pupils cluster around a single book during a class.
Disgruntled teachers. A number of teachers at Eastern and throughout the city have the general feeling that they are fighting a monstrous problem in the classroom without any support from administrators of the school board, both of whom are thought to be more concerned about petty fights over personnel appintments than what goes on in the classroom. In addition, teachers in the city schools are being openly denounced by public officials, including some school board members and parents who feel that teachers are overpaid and don't work hard enough. These problems come as negotiations between the school board and the teachers' union drag on and regular strike threats verge on closing city schools.
Unhappy administrators.The new principal will face resentment among some administrators in schools who have not won appointment to permanent principalships, such as the one at Eastern. One of Jackson's new assistant principals, Hammond, is openly bitter about not being chosen to be Eastern's new principal. Hammond was at Eastern when Jackson was a student.
Jackson is unmoved by the magnitude of the challenge before him.
"No matter what the problems," he said the other day, "the basic values never change.
"Youngsters can learn," Jackson said, "and it is the responsibility of the administrators, the educators to find a means to reach young people... whatever it takes."
Jackson said he does not know what caused the problems at Eastern and other city high schools.
"I'm not so concerned about what happened as I am concerned about what to do about it," he said recently.
Jackson said he will be trying to bring back some of the past "dedication" to education that he felt from his teachers fwhen he was a student there.
Jackson said that some of the teachers and counselors at Eastern now were there when he was a student. Ethel Eldridge, now a counselor, was his math teacher. Ann Cocroft now the librarian, was the librarian when he was a student.
In many ways Jackson resembles the man he will be working for, Superintendent Reed.
Both are believers in strong discipline and both take the time to praise pupils who are doing well in school.
Since he has been superintendent, Reed has gone from school to school in the city to give special awards to honor roll students. Jackson constantly badgers studnts in the halls about their grades.
Jackson said the first thing he intends to do at Eastern is to make students understand the importance of education.
Reed said he has not talked to Jackson since the school board voted in mid-January to name Jackson the principal of Eastern. But Reed said he had "confidence," in Jackson wheh he brought his name beforc the board for the principalship, and will affer him strong support.
Reed's administration, however, has not centered its efforts on the city's high schools. Reed said yesterday he is working towards his "long range," goals for improving city schools by concentrating on elementary school students. Reed said little can be done to help today's hight school students who went to elementary school between 1967 and 1975. Reed said the school system stopped teaching reading, writing and math during that period and he wants to be judged as a superintendent by the test scores of student who came into the school system in 1975, when he became superintendent.
"That doesn't mean we're giving up on the secondary schools," Reed said from Houston. "We have a long-range plan and a short-range plan. What we want to do is to make sure that the kids coming up don't have the same kinds of problems with the basic skills that the kids in the high schools now have... The short-range plan (that includes helping the high schools) is starting the reading labs for kids in high school, and getting to teachers to realize that reading is part of their subject no matter what they teach."
Jackson, 35, went to Wilberforce University in Ohio where he described himself as an "average" student after graduating from Eastern. He has been an assistant principal at Woodson Junior High, a school that sends two-thirds of its graduates to Eastern.
At Woodson, Jackson was knows as a strict disciplinarian, the kind of school administrator who would go to a student's home in the evening to talk to parents if the child had misbehaved in school that day.
Order is strictly maintained at Woodson. Students there do slightly better than at other junior high schools in the city but they, too, score far below national averages.
"Absenteeism and obher problems can be solved by letting kids know that education is important. Young people don't realize the great demand for knowledge and skills, basic reading and math as well as occupational skills...
"I'm going to exhaust all efforts to get parents and young people to realize certain basic things are needed and try to make them aware that those basic things are what we will be trying to achieve in the school. They are going to know that we are serious."