It was not supposed to be a trial of the only African American woman to run a Montgomery County high school. But on a chilly November evening, Sheila Dobbins listened impassively as one white parent after another berated her for the school's low test scores, bad reputation and her refusal to expand a program for elite students.
Black parents rose quickly to defend the besieged principal before the hundreds of parents, staff members and students who had convened in the Kennedy High School cafeteria for a meeting hastily called by her superiors.
"This reminds me of the '60s," said Lloyd Darasaw, a black parent and Dobbins supporter, "when this country suffered because neighbor was alienated against neighbor."
Dobbins sat at the center of an ugly fight that has fractured parents along racial lines. On the surface, the battle lines have been drawn around an elite, majority-white program and whether and how it should grow in the majority-black school.
But the issues are far larger and deeper than that, and the situation has spun out of control. The popular founder and director of the elite program--the Leadership Training Institute (LTI)--has resigned. Nasty e-mail messages have been sent, copied and recirculated. Meetings are tape-recorded. Freedom of Information Act requests have been filed to see what other parents are saying. A recent Parent Teacher Student Association meeting was described as a "race riot" on an anti-Dobbins Web site. And, under pressure from black parents, four white PTSA leaders have resigned.
Dobbins has been nicknamed "the Commandant" and a "Petty Tyrant" by white parents who want her out. And other parents, mostly black, are fiercely defending her right to stay.
"Maybe we can last till June," said Michael Tile, a Kennedy English teacher for 31 years and no fan of Dobbins's. "A lot of people don't think we can survive much beyond that."
More than a fight over a program or a principal, the fracturing at Kennedy is indicative of the loaded racial politics at any school in transition from majority-white to majority-minority. And as America's once-white suburbs increasingly take on rainbow hues--during an era when improving education verges on a national crusade--the fracturing threatens to become a common controversy. At its heart, the conflict at Kennedy is less about Dobbins's divisive management style or a special program and more about fear.
It is fear fed by the fact that many of the nation's poorest-performing schools are populated mainly by minorities, a perception that allows some to conclude that the driving factor is race, rather than poverty or social deprivation. It is a perception deeply resented by black parents, many of whom were drawn to Montgomery County by the same promise of top-flight schools that attracted their white counterparts.
"There is a perception that whenever a school is predominantly of color, it's not as good," said Amy Stuart Wells, a UCLA education professor who studies diverse schools. "There is an inherent belief that black and Hispanic kids are not as smart. We don't like to talk about this stuff, but that's the way it is."
A puzzle in the Kennedy controversy is that both black and white parents, who live in similarly comfortable homes in similarly mixed neighborhoods, say they want the same thing: better academics at the school. So how have they become so divided? The problem is, in part, about philosophic differences, personality conflicts and people who simply don't like each other. Part of it is about control. And as much as the white parents in this county, a traditional bastion of white liberalism, wish it wasn't so, every turn in the controversy is seen through the prism of race.
In Dobbins, black parents see an African American who has struggled to make it to the top being pushed around. They see working with her as the best way to achieve the common goal of improving the school and fear that no one is listening to them. And they feel that those in power in the county will do anything to appease white parents to keep them from fleeing.
"When black parents say, 'we want a good education for our kids,' it's like some white people don't hear it," said Dionne Jones, an African American parent with two sons in LTI. "They act like they're the only ones who want a good education for their kids and that we just want our kids to be in sports. That's insulting."
White parents who have stayed as others fled the public schools fear that without a haven such as LTI and separate advanced classes, their children will fall behind at a diverse school. They point to the fact that Kennedy ranks third from the bottom among 23 county high schools in college entrance exam scores and that the average SAT score has declined by 15 points in the last three years.
"The fact that we're not up to par with the rest of the school system is very frustrating to me," said PTSA President Bill Chappell, a white parent whose children are not in LTI. "The 'other side' hasn't asked about academic rigor. All they've done is complain about what we've done with Dr. Dobbins."
The situation is depressingly familiar. As integration came to schools in the District, Philadelphia, Detroit and other inner cities, minorities moved in and whites moved out. Property values plummeted. Resources for schools dried up as the needs of students rose. Test scores fell. Schools became perceived as rough and drug-infested. And the fear that minority schools are "bad schools" became a self-fulling prophecy.
Fifty percent is the tipping point, which Kennedy reached in the late 1980s. And Montgomery County, where white parents fled from the newly desegregated inner-city years ago, is now at that critical point: The once all-white system is now barely half-white. A central question for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast: Will white parents flee again?
Because Kennedy's feuding parents have such different perceptions of what is said, what is heard and what is meant, school administrators are appointing an advisory board of outsiders to restore "reason and civility." The county also is sending in mediators--one white, one black--early next year.
"We don't think it's only a minority-relations problem," said Steven G. Seleznow, deputy superintendent and a Kennedy graduate. "But it's rather clear that's what's dividing the school."
John F. Kennedy High School, which sits between Wheaton and Silver Spring, always has had a reputation as a school that broke the mold. It opened in 1965 as an experimental school. It had no walls. Students chose their classes, and nobody made them go. Instead, many hung out in the halls, rode tricycles and listened to rock music blaring over the intercom. Rumors abounded of drugs done in the parking lot.
"It was wild and crazy," said Peter Schmidt, a Kennedy graduate who runs the anti-Dobbins Web site. "Those days, if you wanted to do something, you had to do it on your own because no one was going to push you or care what you did."
Over the years, things changed. Walls were built. Students were herded from the halls into classrooms. Principals came and went. And the community was evolving. The school that opened with 11 black students out of 1,000 became more diverse.
Some luxury apartments gradually became subsidized housing. Low-cost apartment buildings sprang up. And the area around Kennedy became the first stop out of the city for many minority families moving to the suburbs and the promise of better schools.
The complexion of the student body at Kennedy became increasingly darker. From 1980 to 1995, Kennedy's minority population jumped from 26 percent to 71.
Test scores dropped. Fears of gangs and violence rose. One fight a few years ago at a basketball game brought out 40 police with dogs and seemed to confirm those fears.
Some white parents panicked and moved out, sending property values on a downward spiral. Others sent their children to private schools. Thus was born the "Kennedy myth," that everyone knows two people who have left because the school is so bad. And some white parents and students say it gained a reputation as a "ghetto school."
Dan Craig moved his family to Chevy Chase last year, in part because his oldest son entered Kennedy as a B student and graduated a C student. "I also sensed it was on the decline," he said.
In the early 1990s, the white parents who stayed behind, many of them liberals who had gone to affluent, majority-white schools and wanted their children to experience diversity, sought to turn that perception around. They joined PTSAs and soon were running them. They set up piano lesson scholarships for the increasing numbers of poor children and gathered clothing for them. Some formed the Kennedy Coalition and began lobbying for more money, better social services and changed school boundaries to limit the number of apartment buildings feeding less-affluent children to the school.
"I live here because it fills me up," said one white parent. "It's not that I think I'm better, it's maybe that I see how it works, because I came from the other side, the entitled ones. I'd like to make black parents feel entitled, too."
In 1992, the white activists discovered that 80 of the area's brightest students, instead of attending Kennedy, were transferring to rigorous magnet programs at Montgomery Blair High School or to the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery. And they wanted those students back.
"Academic strivers set the tone for academic achievement in a school. They're a model for other students," Deputy Superintendent Seleznow said. "In the age of accountability, these are students you want to keep."
Without help from the county, these parents met in basements and over coffee and came up with the Leadership Training Institute, which would combine the academic rigor of advanced-level classes with the innovative study of leadership styles and governments. Students would go on field trips. Have seminars and speakers. And they would spend 200 hours over four years on community service projects such as cleaning streams or reading to seniors.
LTI started small, with about 50 students for each grade admitted after teachers looked at a combination of grades, test scores, interviews and essays.
By some measures, they have succeeded brilliantly. The curriculum has been copied in schools across the country. It is being translated into Russian and will be used in schools in Cape Town, South Africa. The latest county data show that only 29 students from the Kennedy area are attending the special programs at Montgomery Blair and Richard Montgomery.
But in some ways, LTI also has failed. It has embittered parents and split the students into two camps. Some, such as Latoya Peterson, an African American and student government leader, said that she wasn't recruited and that the program appeared "very elite." Others called LTI students snobby.
"In class, they're like, 'I'm better than you,' " said freshman Ryan McKinney, who is white and not in LTI.
And that's part of what has stirred the current troubles. It was never supposed to remain an isolated country club within the school, white parents insist.
"We wanted to increase the rigor in a nonperforming school, and we had to start small," said Bill Waller, Kennedy PTSA cluster coordinator, who is white. "But the original concept document clearly states the LTI was supposed to be expanded across the school."
White parents don't simply accuse Dobbins of thwarting LTI expansion, but talk to 25 people and you'll get 25 different visions of what expansion is supposed to look like. Most white parents say expansion means that everyone gets in.
And that's what many black parents object to. Expanding schoolwide defeats the purpose, they say.
"If you want to compete, you have to have the kind of program a magnet does," said De'Neece Henry, an LTI parent, Dobbins supporter and head of Kennedy's NAACP Parent Council. "Show me a program that can compete and can include everyone."
The seeds of the current controversy were sown in the fall of 1998, when Henry, then PTSA president, asked county school officials to help improve Kennedy's dismal image. White parents, including Waller, came to the PTSA meeting armed with charts and graphs showing that Kennedy's SAT scores were stuck near the bottom in the county and that the school required the lowest score, 33, to pass the Algebra I final exam. They accused the county and black parents of relying on "smoke and mirrors" to mask the real problems. The meeting dissolved in turmoil.
At the same time, county administrators finally acknowledged what many white parents, for years, had called "benign neglect." Other schools had millions of dollars in grants for special programs. Kennedy had nothing.
Last winter, Seleznow met with community members and promised $400,000 to boost academics at Kennedy cluster schools. And he promised to expand LTI.
But when white parents discovered in March that only 45 students, the usual number, were being accepted into the program, they went to Seleznow. "That was war," said one.
At a 7:30 a.m. meeting with Seleznow days later, Dobbins agreed to accept all 110 applicants. And LTI director Jeff Schultz created a less-challenging second tier that students call "Stupid LTI."
That's when black parents became irate. In going over Dobbins's head to Seleznow, they felt the white parents undermined Dobbins. And the expansion made room for more whites in a program that was already half-white in a school that is 42 percent black, 25 percent white. "Well, that was war," Henry said.
The controversy simmered until September, when John Judis, a Kennedy parent whose daughter is in LTI, wrote an essay in the New Republic magazine saying, in effect, that Dobbins was a bad principal. Then the subterranean racial tensions erupted.
"Finally, I felt, someone had the courage to tell the truth," said Harry Bagdasian, a white parent who resigned as PTSA co-president.
Judis used phrases such as "bright flight," that black parents saw as code for "white flight." And he described some Kennedy classrooms as akin to "those in the worst D.C. schools." Which are majority-black.
"When we went to them and said it was offensive, they brushed it aside," said Henry. "That's like saying we're insignificant. And they sit up there talking about diversity."
Now, both sides are dug in: "You can't work with people like that," said Vivian Koroknay, a white parent who resigned from the PTSA. Said Henry: "I'm supposed to believe these people, that they have an earnest intent to cooperate? I know better."
On a recent day, Principal Sheila Dobbins, dressed in mauve and pearls with highlighted, coiffed hair, stood squarely in the center of a cafeteria filled with students of every color and high-octane teenage energy.
She alternated between forcefully booming, "Guuuuys, no running," and pulled herself up to her full 5 feet 1 inch to address a student who towered over her. With one look, the student quickly tore his baseball cap from his head and sheepishly apologized for breaking her strict no-hats rule. She warned one student: "Get your buns to class or I'm gonna call your mother."
"I decided to talk because another view needs to be heard," she said later, explaining her prolonged public silence on the situation. "That I'm not this ogre some people want me to be."
She said that LTI was an "excellent program." That she always intended to expand it. But on her own terms. In her own time. "We needed to look at developing a quality program," she said, "rather than doing something just because someone wants you to do it."
That's when relations with the activist white parents broke down. To them, LTI is the only way to save the school and restore stability--and property values--to the community.
Dobbins not only has a different view but also a different mandate: She came to Kennedy in 1996 to restore discipline to a school seen as out of control. And, Seleznow said, to take control "of all programs and activities in the school, including LTI."
That sparked a power struggle and an increasingly poisonous relationship with the wildly popular LTI director Schultz, who now teaches at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District.
"Some of it became personal," Schultz said. "We wound up having such a hate for each other, it clouded our vision. I can be man enough to admit it was both ways."
Schultz's resignation and Dobbins's failure to call LTI meetings or openly communicate with parents made a combustible situation worse. White parents accused her of diverting $6,000 from LTI and of willfully neglecting Seleznow's order to expand the program.
On both counts, Seleznow supports Dobbins. He said Dobbins did not "undermine" his directive and attributed her failure to expand the program in the spring to "communication problems." And the transferred funds were used to buy Advanced Placement history books for LTI students. "If we felt she had done anything untoward, we would have told her," Seleznow said. "We didn't, and we don't."
To improve the school's faltering academics, Dobbins has added more SAT prep courses and Advanced Placement classes. The number of AP tests taken rose from 61 to 173 last year. She is just starting "Camelot," a rigorous math program that goes beyond AP calculus. She has cut the suspension and dropout rates, and she has gone to nearby malls to get students back to class. She is implementing a schoolwide signature program on law, ethics and leadership.
White parents say their differences with Dobbins are philosophical, not racial. She calls it her school, they say, and is unwelcoming. It's really our school, they contend. They accuse black parents of playing the race card to obscure low test scores.
"It's about partnership, not pigment," Waller said.
But black parents say that's insulting. Not only do they, too, want improved academics but also they think the only way to achieve that is to work with the principal. The conflict, they say, is about control, about the white parents, whom some call "the Chosen Ones," wanting everything their way.
Indeed, white parents have asked that Dobbins "restore the autonomy of the LTI to the community which designed and developed it."
"They're saying that just because we're black, we're supporting a black," said Millie Wiggins, a longtime Kennedy PTSA activist. "We all want SAT scores to rise. What I do not believe in is that you get your way for total control by undermining the principal."
To UCLA professor Wells, the rancor at Kennedy is all too familiar.
"In our study of 10 diverse schools, white parents always said, 'I want my children in diverse schools because that's what the real world is like,' " she said. "What they meant was, 'I want my kids in a diverse school, but in different classes, in special programs.' We called it 'diversity at a distance.' "
White parents are in a fix, Wells said.
"White liberal parents are torn between supporting diversity and the symbols of the civil rights movement and realizing that getting their kids into prestigious colleges is very competitive," she said.
And that view has been adopted by some African Americans.
"My mom said if I didn't get into LTI, I'm not going to Kennedy," said an LTI junior who is one of a handful of blacks in her class.
Kermit V. Burnett, a member of Montgomery County's school board and a Kennedy parent, said race is tough to talk about and racism is tough to admit. "In my opinion, the LTI was not put in place for bright flight. It was to keep white families in the cluster."
To be fair, the activist white parents at Kennedy have worked for years to improve the schools in ways that help all children. They testified before boards and commissions that the increasing poverty required more funding. For years, they were the only ones to show up at PTSA meetings.
"Maybe we're seen as paternalistic, but we're the ones doing the work," said Chappell, the PTSA president.
Even as the dispute between parents becomes increasingly venomous, parents on both sides of the divide say that at least it hasn't reached the students.
But it has. White students booed Dobbins when she passed by at a recent football game.
"I think we're on the verge of chaos," said one white LTI senior. "You have to be a lot more cautious about what you say now. Tensions will build among students. Even though they haven't yet, they will build."
On a recent Thursday afternoon after school, Lynville Wyse, an African American, planned his senior LTI "Agent of Change" project, a multicultural festival, with his partners, two black and two white. They reached across racial lines when asked to name their best friends.
Of the fighting parents threatening to tear the school apart, Wyse said: "You want to tell them to grow up. We are more civilized than they are."
A Look at John F. Kennedy High School
As the school's student body became majority-minority in recent years and poverty increased, test scores dropped and the school became perceived as troubled. Many white families moved or sent their children to other schools.
Average score and percent tested, 1999
Average Score Percent Tested
Kennedy 977 75%
County 1096 79%
Nation 1016 N/A
(Kennedy is ranked 20th out of 23 county high schools)
Approved number student transfers
By school year
X Into the school
Y Out of the school
NOTE: Denied transfers out of the school have ranged from 24 to 59.
Percent of teaching staff
Cutoff grades set for county Algebra I scores
X John F. Kennedy
Y County average
SOURCE: Montgomery County Public Schools