The list that DCPS officials put out each year has no names, just the schools that will undergo “leadership changes.” Any other details about how or why their principals become ex-principals are safely socked away behind claims that personnel and privacy rules prohibit any public discussion.
Some situations aren’t hard to figure out. There are schools that have continued to struggle academically, or that are off the hook with discipline issues. Some principals want to retire or have decided that the job has to be easier somewhere else. So far as I know, no one this year has quit to sell cupcakes.
But every year there is at least one case in which the secrecy and opacity of the process infuriates a school community, leaving students, parents and teachers feeling treated like children who can’t handle the truth. This year it’s Michael Johnson, the founding principal of the new Phelps Architectural, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast, which graduated its first class of 84 students Friday.
Johnson, a blunt-spoken Brooklyn native and veteran of the New York City school system, isn’t universally loved. But he is respected and admired for establishing a serious culture at Phelps, an application-only school where 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Growth in 2011 DC CAS scores qualified the school for Adequate Yearly Progress under the “safe harbor” provision of No Child Left Behind. Johnson forged alliances with trade unions and partners such as Cisco, the American Institute of Architects and the National Highway Safety Administration to enrich the career and technical training program. He also bought prom dresses for girls who couldn’t afford them and gave rides home to anyone who needed them.
“I’m jubilant and incensed. This is a school that is thriving in Northeast D.C.,” said Loretta Caldwell, a few minutes after her daughter walked across the stage to receive a diploma that will send her to Virginia State University to study electrical engineering. Caldwell is one of a group scheduled to rally at the Wilson Building Monday in opposition to Johnson’s removal.
Another Phelps parent, India Evans, e-mailed: “It’s funny to me that society always puts an emphasis on our young men seeing a positive man who looks like them as far as being African American. And then, as soon as someone is in that position, DCPS wants to remove them without any say from the people that have the most at stake.”
Ricardo Brooks, father of a sophomore and chairman of the school’s joint parent-staff committee, said he had no inkling of trouble until last week’s official notification. If there is some serious underlying issue with Johnson’s performance, Brooks said, parents are entitled to know. At a meeting last Tuesday night, they were exasperated when Johnson’s immediate superior, Instructional Superintendent Dan Shea, made vague references to goals that had not been met but declined to elaborate. Instead, parents said, he asked them to organize a panel to screen potential successors to Johnson-- candidates already selected by DCPS.
“You have a process with zero transparency. No matter how I slice it, as a business person, as a political junkie, it just doesn’t make sense,” said Brooks, a management consultant.
Shea is only part of the official silence. Chancellor Kaya Henderson has yet to return a Friday morning e-mail requesting comment. And Johnson himself hasn’t helped matters, insisting that he has no idea why he was dumped.
“You’ll have to ask them,” he said, referring to DCPS higher-ups.
In the absence of any official word, everyone is left to sift through fragments of evidence and rumor. Phelps is under-enrolled, with 329 students in a new $66 million facility that can accommodate more than 600. The 84-student class of 2012 is noticeably smaller than the group of 119 that started as freshmen in 2008. There is speculation that Johnson may have balked because DCPS is considering converting Phelps from its application-only status to a neighborhood school, merging with nearby Spingarn High.
Brooks said Johnson clashed with DCPS over the decision to use excess space at Phelps to house Spectrum, a program for special education students.
“Mr. Johnson is not a yes-man,” Brooks said.
Johnson made no direct reference to his situation in an emotional address to graduates Friday morning. But the subtext was clear.
“In this life there are things you have to stand up for,” he said. “I wish I could tell you, ‘You do this, and it’s over.’ It doesn’t mean that your right to be somewhere is not going to be challenged.”
Johnson choked up as he started to explain the obstacles that his students faced, especially those whose parents he never saw.
“If you knew what they’ve been through. I got a bunch of grandmothers here,“ he said, gesturing to the audience crowd. The students, in their purple gowns, began to weep.
From the back came a shout: “Four more years!”