This article originally published on April 6, 2003.
Mr. Kaplowitz doesn't teach here anymore. Nor does Mr. Ehrmann. Teachers are forever leaving this place: One says she'll never teach again; another says this wasn't teaching, it was guard duty; still another never really knew how rewarding his profession could be until he got out of here and into a different system. The principal is gone — demoted, transferred — another name remembered with a grumble and a shake of the head, one of five principals who passed through Emery Elementary School in two years, a roller coaster of raised and dashed hopes. One mom says things are getting much better, but immediately asks for advice on how to get her child out — now.
It's not that this building just off North Capitol Street in Northeast Washington is the worst of the D.C. public schools. After all, this is a system that sees superintendents drift in and out, each savior bringing a new way to reform schools that have disappointed parents for decades. Rebuild from the bottom, create shining examples at the top, attack one school at a time, change the funding system, bring in new blood, retrain existing staff, erect new buildings, focus on the children. Save all the slogans -- the two big questions about the District schools remain unchanged: Why are they so bad? And can they be improved?
Mr. Kaplowitz and Mr. Ehrmann believed they could make a difference. They were young and idealistic, bred to think of themselves as the best and the brightest. If tired bureaucrats couldn't press change on failing inner-city public schools, well, then these 22-year-olds from fancy colleges would just have to do it themselves.
Josh Kaplowitz, fresh out of Yale, and Nick Ehrmann, just arrived from Northwestern, stepped into Emery Elementary that fall of 2000 armed with the heady mix of confidence, curiosity and caring that their mentors at Teach for America had instilled in them over a six-week summer training program. Conceived in the late 1980s by a Princeton undergraduate, Teach for America encourages bright young people to give two years of their lives to classrooms, mainly in tough inner-city schools that have long failed to educate their students.
Kaplowitz and Ehrmann thought they knew what they were getting into: The rowhouses surrounding Emery's dead-end street were home to families that had hardly any money, little education, only the slightest connection to the school, and all manner of dysfunction. At many D.C. schools, most children are poor enough to get free or subsidized meals; at Emery, 100 percent qualified. Every single child.
What could a few kids straight out of college accomplish here? Wouldn't they hit the same wall of defensiveness, resistance and suspicion that has turned countless reformers, volunteers, news reporters, grantmakers and officials into sputtering testimonials to the impossibility of change? Or had some switch flipped in Washington? Was there reason to believe that the housing boom and the influx of affluent residents eager to claim the city as their own would finally force the District to remake its schools? The District's renaissance, if it were ever to spread beyond a few chic sections within range of a Fresh Fields, required the presence not only of young singles but also of families who would demand decent schools before they'd consider life in the big city.
Even around Emery, you could sense something new coming. Just around the corner, contractors' pickups double-parked outside the freshly rehabbed rowhouses of new residents, some of whom had just gotten jobs at the burgeoning enterprises a couple of blocks away, at XM Satellite Radio, FedEx and other offices coming in at Florida and New York avenues -- site of a future Metro station. Change was in the air, and if the D.C. schools weren't exactly the vanguard of the revolution, there were at least some signs of "transformation," as the new superintendent, Paul Vance, liked to put it. He was busy attacking the worst schools, pulling out their principals, their entire staffs, starting over, determined to create early and visible successes.
But inside Emery, a sad, sagging 1960s-era building with fading aqua-and-cream tiling in the lobby and overgrown weeds and shards of glass around its exterior, there was no sign of transformation that fall. When I asked people to describe what the school was like, three teachers, two mothers and an administrator each separately chose the same words: "The inmates ran the asylum."
In his senior year at Yale, Josh Kaplowitz ran for president of the student government. If elected, he promised to start a campus "escort" service and moon administrators who objected to his proposals. His campaign posters featured the endorsement of an adult video shop. No one expected a serious platform from Kaplowitz, who had been an editor of the Rumpus, the campus humor magazine, and host of a college radio station show that got pulled off the air after Kaplowitz and his co-host regaled their audience with descriptions of female genitalia read from a porn magazine.
Kaplowitz was a campus prankster, but he was also an excellent student: a graduate of the Governor's School, a public magnet school in Richmond where he led his "Battle of the Brains" team to the finals of the National Academic Championship. Son of two doctors, he interned on Capitol Hill with Sens. Chuck Robb and Jay Rockefeller. "I knew I wanted to end up in D.C.," he says.
As graduation loomed, Kaplowitz turned down job offers from a high-paying management consulting firm and Al Gore's polling firm. "I didn't want to devote my life to helping the rich get richer or crunching numbers to see what views were most popular for the vice president to adopt," he wrote later.
Tall, thin, with ruddy cheeks and the same backpack he carried around in college, Kaplowitz drove to Emery for the first time in his parents' old Volvo, intent on winning over students and parents. He would visit his kids' families in their homes, take the kids on trips, wow Emery with his smarts and creativity.
"My intuition was that these kids weren't learning because they didn't have teachers who got them excited," he says.
Nick Ehrmann's path to Teach for America was similar. He grew up in a leafy section of Indianapolis, son of two psychologists. After studying history and American studies at Northwestern, Nick was smitten with Potomac Fever. He wanted to do social policy. Teaching in Washington would give him a front-row seat on government. Like Kaplowitz, he loved the idea of Teach for America, the notion of growing while giving back.
That summer, along with 900 other college grads, Kaplowitz and Ehrmann headed to the University of Houston for an intensive training program where they would teach summer school for two hours a day and study pedagogy, child development and cultural sensitivity. The last was an essential part of the Teach for America curriculum because despite strenuous efforts to recruit "people of color" to the program, TFA consisted largely of affluent whites teaching poor blacks and Hispanics. In Washington the year Kaplowitz and Ehrmann started teaching, 50 of Teach for America's 62 corps members were white.
"We want to attract the best and brightest to D.C., and Teach for America has some of the brightest minds in the country coming from the greatest universities," says Steve Seleznow, who was the District system's chief of staff until earlier this year. "These kids have helped us assure that we have quality teachers who want to be here." The District has 133 Teach for America members this year among 5,000 teachers.
Both Kaplowitz and Ehrmann thought about living in Emery's Northeast neighborhood, but apartments were hard to find. Kaplowitz moved into a group house in Arlington, while Ehrmann rented an apartment in Dupont Circle. But they were each determined to make Emery their real home.
Yo, listen close, this is wakeup time.
This is Mr. K's class and we're laying down
See, there's so much more to education
Than filling in bubbles for test preparation.
The rap Josh Kaplowitz wrote for his 25 fifth-graders went on for four more stanzas.
When he heard about plans for an October "Parents, Children, Schools" assembly, Kaplowitz volunteered his class to perform his rap. It was a chance to demonstrate how he would close the gap between his life of privilege and the stresses of the inner city.
Getting his class ready for the show wasn't easy. Kids didn't want to rehearse. They didn't learn the words, and Kaplowitz reluctantly realized he would have to join the children onstage. He cringed at the vision of the white teacher leading his black students in a rap before an almost entirely black audience. But he felt he had no choice.
So he stepped up, turned his cap backward and launched into his rap.
Without the parents, we can't have the kids,
Without the kids, we can't have the schools.
The three have got to work together,
Or we'll all end up a bunch of fools.
What Kaplowitz recalls is the ovation his kids won from the audience of 400, and his first compliment from Lisa Savoy, his principal.
"I actually had kids from other classes come up to me and say they want to be in my class," Kaplowitz says. "And a lot of teachers seemed to start respecting me, this white kid from Yale up on stage rapping. This is what I imagined Teach for America would be like, bridging the cultural divide."
But that's not how the show was perceived elsewhere. "As much as these children liked to dance and play, they stood up there doing nothing," remembers Patricia Vest, a third-grade teacher now in her fourth year at Emery and nearing three decades in the city schools. "It was awkward."
Several black teachers talked about the assembly afterward. They had to credit Kaplowitz's gumption, but there was something off about the spectacle of the white boy rapping up there. No one could quite put their finger on it, but some teachers would look back on that moment later and say it was the first time they thought Josh Kaplowitz was headed for trouble.
From his first day at Emery, Kaplowitz could see that most of his fifth-graders were ready and eager to learn. He could also see that at least half a dozen children in his class were hellbent on having a wild time.
He was in over his head from Minute One. Children threw crumpled paper, wrestled on the floor, punched each other. They challenged Kaplowitz to his face: "I'm not doing it. What are you gonna do about it?"
"Other kids would see them get away with it, and it would all go downhill," Kaplowitz recalls. "I lost half the class at the beginning of each lesson. I lost the class the first week."
A couple of doors away, in Room 312, Nick Ehrmann was struggling to command the attention of his 28 fourth-graders. One boy cursed Ehrmann out every time he walked by. Kids threw things, shouted, fought, wandered around. One kid brought a pocketknife to school.
"Every day for three months, I thought, 'This is not working,' " Ehrmann says. "They curse at you, and, at first, I played the game. I would raise my voice, send them to the office. And they'd be bounced right back to me.
"Our school was bereft of a discipline system -- period."
At the summer institute, Ehrmann and Kaplowitz had been taught a color code: All students start at green, then move to various shades of yellow and red as they commit infractions. Each color brings consequences: timeout, no recess, call parents, go to office.
Kaplowitz moved hrough the rainbow with zero success. "He had beautiful charts, and he'd move your sticker if you misbehaved -- stuff that works in a lot of environments, but not here," says Earl Wallace, who spent two years teaching at Emery before leaving for the Prince George's County schools, where "it's like Mayberry compared to D.C."
Kaplowitz learned that he couldn't threaten loss of recess because there was no recess detention. Lisa Savoy, Emery's third principal in less than a year, told Kaplowitz to quit sending children to her office or neighboring classrooms.
When he asked what he should do instead, she told him to redirect the children's attention and give them something exciting to work on.
Savoy, now an administrator at Mamie D. Lee special education school, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article and referred questions to the school system's press office, which in turn sent me to Assistant Superintendent Bill Wilhoyte, who couldn't answer questions about Savoy's tenure at Emery because he's new to the system. Steve Seleznow, then the system's No. 2 official, says Savoy had to leave before the school could improve.
That first week, Savoy announced over the public-address system that corporal punishment would not be tolerated; teachers were not to strike or even touch students. Her message, part of a citywide crackdown, was the result of an epidemic of allegations against teachers at Emery and many other D.C. schools.
Kaplowitz and Ehrmann figured they hardly needed Savoy's warnings. After all, they'd been brought up in homes where striking a child was considered criminal. And Teach for America's training drove the message home: Discipline is about winning respect by showing respect; screaming, threatening and physical force were evidence of failure.
Most of Emery's veteran teachers believed that, too. But Savoy's announcement, they say, came across as a passing of authority from teachers to children.
"She made it clear that the children were in charge," says Wallace, who estimates he spent 80 percent of his classroom time trying to maintain order.
"It was a nightmare year," agrees teacher Patricia Vest. "The children knew they could do anything. I was breaking up fights constantly."
Ted McGinn, one of the school's few white parents, says the new teachers who arrived that fall "were basically set adrift . . . You had parents roaming the halls and threatening teachers. In front of the children, even during school, parents would berate the teachers, loudly."
Emery, says Seleznow, was "reaching the level of being in real serious trouble. Of 146 schools, it was in that top 10 of schools in real conflict."
With four Teach for America teachers starting out that fall, parents and teachers were abuzz. "There's so much resentment about having them to come into the schools," says Vest, who is black. "We were always a divided faculty. People would say the same things about the Teach for America kids that they used to say about us: 'They need to go back where they came from, they need to stick to their own.' "
Some moms told me that the young white teachers were being paid big money and otherwise had no desire to be there. (In fact, TFA teachers got standard D.C. starting salaries of $32,000 a year.) Others fixated on the body piercings or casual demeanor of the new teachers. But within a few weeks, the parent gossip calmed, except when it came to Mr. Kaplowitz. Word was that he was bad news.
One mother, who worked in the school as a teacher's aide, was so suspicious of Kaplowitz that she would often walk into his room to check on her child; if she didn't like what she saw, she would berate the teacher -- even using racial invective -- in front of his class. Their run-ins grew so heated that the police were summoned, and the woman was finally formally barred from entering Kaplowitz's classroom.
"Mr. Kaplowitz was in a group of the first white teachers to come to the school in many years," explains Wendy Walcott, a black parent who serves as president of Emery's Parent Teacher Association. "Before that, we had one white teacher who had been there so long, he and we forgot he was white. People saw these young Teach for America kids as whites, not as teachers. They assumed he was this white, Jewish, rich kid, and how dare he come here with some idea that our kids could actually be taught.
"This neighborhood is predominantly black. They see these young white teachers come in, and they think it has to do with the neighborhood being revitalized and all these different people coming in and housing prices going up. They put all that together, and they're scared. They would rather have the black teacher who refuses to teach their children than this white teacher who's trying so hard.
"Mr. Kaplowitz was totally inexperienced," Walcott continues, "and he thought he could conquer the world. But at least he wanted to push our children. I appreciated that, even if it was threatening to some of our parents."
Kaplowitz had no idea how to allay their fears. One Saturday, he decided to try to "connect" with parents who weren't returning his calls or showing up for meetings. He headed into the neighborhood, knocked on Angela Brown's door and said, "Hi, I'm [your daughter's] teacher and I thought I'd drop by and talk about how she's doing." He told the mother that her child had "real promise," that she "can be a little sassy, but if we can work together on that, we can have a great year."
The mother, stunned and embarrassed by the unannounced visit, went straight to school the next week and complained that Kaplowitz was harassing her. Kaplowitz was summoned to a conference with Savoy and the mother, where he was informed that the girl had told her mom that Mr. Kaplowitz had threatened to take out his belt and whip the class.
"My jaw dropped," Kaplowitz recalls. He had never said anything of the kind, he's certain. That was his last home visit.
Kaplowitz's extra efforts didn't always backfire. One boy dominated the class with his disruptive behavior and regularly threatened to kill himself. Kaplowitz decided he had to win over the child. One day, he took him aside and asked what he liked to do. "Football," the boy said.
After school, Kaplowitz invited the boy out to the field and tossed the ball around. Then he walked the boy home, bought him raisins at a corner store and asked him if they could start fresh in class the next day.
That next morning, the boy came in like a new person. He behaved, listened to the teacher, quit disrupting lessons. The effect was only temporary, but Kaplowitz believes he could have made real progress "if there had been only one or two kids like him. But there were so many."
In class, Kaplowitz tried to be true to Teach for America's goal of high standards and expectations. He tested his students regularly and found almost all of them to be at least one and often two grades behind in basic skills. So when the first grading period came to a close, he submitted failing grades for 20 of his 28 students. That is simply not done, and Kaplowitz knew it. "I knew they had been passed along and I was, like, well, the buck stops here," he says. "These kids are going to learn, and if they don't, I'll take them back next year -- it's my responsibility."
Savoy, Kaplowitz recalls, "had a cow." She told him that her policy allowed a teacher to fail no more than 10 percent of a class. Change the grades, she ordered. When Kaplowitz refused, she cited him for insubordination.
"I [have] had enough of your rude outbursts and your haranguing obsession with failing your class at-large," Savoy wrote. "I directed you not to fail your class as a whole or in the majority."
By then, his relationship with Savoy had deteriorated into formal memos of allegation and defense.
She peppered Kaplowitz with "official written reprimands." There were citations for using bad language --two for "ass" (Kaplowitz says he shouted, "Hey, Nick, get your ass down here" while waiting to give Ehrmann a ride) and one for "crap." ("If I cursed in that class two times in a whole year, give me a medal," Kaplowitz says.)
"Although this word 'crap' is not profanity," Savoy wrote, "it is most inappropriate for you to use this vulgar slang in the . . . school environment."
When pencils were vanishing from his room, Kaplowitz, on the advice of his Teach for America friends, asked his students to pay five cents for each pencil. The idea was to "build ownership." It worked beautifully -- until Savoy sent a memo ordering Kaplowitz to cease the sales, a violation of system policy.
Kaplowitz turned elsewhere for help. He approached veteran teachers at Emery, fellow rookies around the city and his TFA supervisors. Some of them concluded that Kaplowitz was inviting problems by being arrogant; they urged him to try some humble pie. Others offered specific strategies for managing his class.
Meanwhile, two doors away, Nick Ehrmann stood frustrated and disappointed before a room full of children with similar troubles and behaviors. But one of those maddening moments pushed Ehrmann to a breakthrough.
It happened when his students were supposed to order copies of the class photograph and only three brought in the fee. Something pivoted in Room 312. "I just decided they were missing out on documenting their childhood," Ehrmann says. So he brought in his own camera and started taking pictures of his students. Every week, he would show the results to the children, and soon, he was encouraging them to make their own pictures.
Ehrmann collected the results into photo essays about the children and their dreams and realities. (Eventually, there was even a Web site, www.project312.org, where 10-year-old Xavier set his sights on becoming a comedian, 12-year-old Porshia declared she wanted to be a nurse, and 12-year-old Travis rhapsodized about following in the footsteps of rapper Snoop Dogg. "Mr. Ehrmann calls it a 'lyrical poet,' " Travis wrote in his "Meet the Students" autobiography, "but I couldn't spell that without his help.")
The photography Ehrmann and his students made together became the foundation of a new trust, and the teacher rewarded the improving behavior with Saturday outings to Washington's monuments and museums, where the children would make more pictures, which Ehrmann would blow up and collect in portfolios that made the students and their parents proud.
Word began to get around the building about what was happening in Room 312. Kids still fought and shouted sometimes, but the matter was resolved inside the room, and if parents resented Mr. Ehrmann for being a presumptuous young outsider, or for being a rich white kid slumming in the ghetto, there was precious little talk of that by midyear. Instead, Room 312 was taking on that magical aura that classrooms get when something's clicking.
One day, when Seleznow was visiting Emery to deal with yet another of the school's troubles, he dropped in on Ehrmann's class. Seleznow knew almost immediately that he was in the presence of a natural.
He sat down with Ehrmann, heard the rookie teacher talk about how photography had turned around his class, and embraced Ehrmann's nascent dream of Project 312, an effort to raise enough money to guarantee his children a path to college. Ehrmann audaciously asked the big boss from downtown whether he could grease the way for Ehrmann to keep these same kids the next academic year -- a virtually unheard-of notion in the District schools.
Seleznow pledged to make it happen, and with approval and admiration from the very top, Ehrmann was now golden.
In January, Savoy switched Kaplowitz out of his problematic fifth-grade class and gave him a more manageable second-grade section. The trade was an immediate disaster. Parents rebelled against being saddled with a teacher who had already failed elsewhere.
And the new class was no walk in the park: Six of the 18 children were special education students, in need of extra services because of emotional or learning problems. One girl routinely charged other students, fists flying, because her father had told her that was the best way to handle teasing. A big boy who had already been held back once and was headed toward another retention wandered the room hitting kids. Another boy spent his days hurling boogers and pencils at others.
One day soon after taking over his new class, Kaplowitz came upon a girl on the floor pounding away on a boy. "I said, This can't happen. So I pulled her off him. I walked her to the classroom across the hall, wrote her up and sent her to the office." Two days later, the girl's father approached Kaplowitz on the playground and accused him of tying his daughter's hands behind her back.
Officers from the private company that handles the school system's security came around to interview the teacher, parents, students and other witnesses. Kaplowitz spent three weeks on administrative leave before being cleared of the charges.
"The violence just got worse," Kaplowitz says. "I should have just quit, but I wanted to get through the year and be able to succeed. And in those few moments when I could really teach, I thought I was pretty good."
Some parents didn't see any evidence of that. Connie Barnes, whose son clashed repeatedly with Kaplowitz, is quick to concede that Emery was a madhouse, and that Kaplowitz had more than his share of tough kids, including her son, who was suspended for 27 days that year. Barnes blames the principal and the system for failing to assert control: "I discipline [my son] at home -- no toys, no GameBoy, just sit at the table and do work. Why can't they do it at school?" But above all, she blames Kaplowitz: "I don't think he was fit to be a teacher. Every time I came in that room, the kids were getting all wild, yelling and throwing paper and stuff."
Barnes's son eventually complained that his teacher jacked him up against a wall, and his mother believed him. Again, Kaplowitz was cleared of the charge.
Despite the official all-clears, Kaplowitz could never get out from under the cloud of suspicion.
"Josh's disciplinary methods were pretty much what I do," says Vest, "but I'm an African American woman in my mid-fifties, older than many of these children's grandmothers, and I get a different kind of respect. I'm sorry, but in many of those cases, there was nothing Josh could have done differently except be born a different color. We complain a lot about it when it's the reverse, but this was the same thing we face -- racism. Children called the white teachers bitches and MFs, parents could threaten them, and it was okay."
Others don't see it that starkly. "Other white teachers were able to overcome the race issue," says Wallace, the teacher who left Emery for Prince George's County. "However, because Josh was having a tough time, race became an issue."
Seleznow, who is white, defends the District's decision to hire more teachers who "reflect the world that these kids are going into"; he contends that "white teachers are successful now all over the city."
But what Seleznow saw when he watched Kaplowitz while touring Emery one day "was a class out of control.
"That's not a function of the children, it's what the teacher brings. Poor teachers rely more on authority than good teachers do. A bad teacher is always telling kids what the rules are. Oppression leads to aggression."
At Emery, allegations against teachers were becoming almost as common as hall passes.
"At least six of us were accused that year, every male teacher," says Wallace, who was accused of hitting a child and withstood five months of investigation before the charges were dropped. "The kids knew they could get us in trouble by saying, 'Teacher touched me,' and that's what they did. In that school, you were presumed guilty just because you're a teacher."
Discussion of Savoy's no-touching policy dominated every faculty meeting. Wallace and Ehrmann, frustrated by the principal's failure to adopt a discipline policy, got one from another school and proposed that Emery use it. Savoy shot it down.
The combination of the no-touching policy, the lack of a discipline policy and the epidemic of corporal-punishment allegations drove many teachers to the edge. "There were many days I'd open my eyes, sit on the edge of my bed and I just hated the idea of going into Emery again," Wallace says. "There were a couple of days, I got to the parking lot, pulled out my cell phone and called in sick. I just couldn't go in there."
No one denies that Emery had had problems with teachers whupping on children. But the absolute ban on touching left teachers unable to hug a despondent 7-year-old, forbidden to pat a 10-year-old on the back when he made a breakthrough in math.
"We were told that even positive reinforcement through touch is considered corporal punishment because you could withhold that, and that is cruel," Wallace says. He says he was forbidden to order children to stand in the corner, copy words from the dictionary or write the classroom rules on the blackboard. "Those were all banned as corporal punishment," he says. "Miss Savoy said the only thing you could do is ask the child, 'Why are you angry, what made you feel like doing that?' "
Ehrmann assumed that Savoy's orders were the result of an over-reliance on lawyers: "I read straight through that no-touch, no-hug, no-pat policy as a way to limit school liability. Did I put my arm around a kid to praise and comfort? Absolutely."
Ehrmann sometimes felt obliged to do more. One day, he caught one of his students just as he was about to attack other children. "I had to restrain that child to prevent him from hitting others," Ehrmann says. A parent he had never met saw Ehrmann hold the child back. The school system's security office launched an investigation. For four months, Ehrmann heard nothing. Then, one day, an investigator came and told him he was cleared.
Kaplowitz dispensed hugs and pats, too, but he also had a temper, and when his frustration over his inability to attain order mounted, he on several occasions exploded. Children said Mr. Kaplowitz used profanity in front of them. A few times, he slammed his ever-present clipboard down hard and loud. And in several hotly disputed moments, he either shoved a child or he didn't.
Ehrmann initially told me that he had never seen Kaplowitz break the corporal-punishment rules, but in a letter he wrote just before this article went to press, he said he witnessed Kaplowitz losing it twice, including "placing his hands" on a student's shoulders "and shoving him against the wall while yelling in his face."
"I did not shove a kid against the wall," Kaplowitz says in response. "I'm sure I came into contact with him in the interest of restraining him. I never tried to hurt a child. I'm not sure of the motivation behind Nick's letter. The fact that Nick had a false corporal-punishment charge against him shows what was going on there."
Five times between February and June, Kaplowitz was accused of touching students, culminating in an incident that happened four days before the end of the school year. As Kaplowitz's class returned from recess, a boy named Raynard agitatedly told the teacher he had to go to the bathroom to get some water. Kaplowitz says he was unable to settle the child, who was preventing the class from watching a movie. "I just wanted him out," he says, "so I led him to the hall to go to the bathroom."
Kaplowitz says he did touch Raynard,but only to guide him out the door "with my hand on the small of his back," without any force.
As it turned out, Raynard's mother, Sharlene Ware,was in the building; she'd come to school to argue for her son to be placed in a special class for emotionally troubled kids. Raynard found his mother and told her that Mr. Kaplowitz had shoved him, causing him to fall and hurt his head and back. The mother called 911.
Within minutes, police, fire and ambulance arrived at Emery. Kaplowitz was questioned for two hours. He never returned to his class.
Two days later, Kaplowitz received a letter terminating him from his employment with D.C. Public Schools. Kaplowitz was devastated; he knew his year had been a disaster, but he believed he had connected with some children. He always felt he was on the verge of a breakthrough.
In August, he was charged with shoving 7-year-old Raynard to the ground, a misdemeanor count of simple assault.
Kaplowitz's lawyer arranged for him to turn himself in to police on the morning of September 11, 2001. A process that ordinarily takes a few hours fell victim to the terrorist attacks. Kaplowitz heard about the World Trade Center while he was handcuffed to a chair in an interrogation room. He saw one of the towers collapse while his mug shots were being taken. Amid that day's confusion, he didn't get out of his holding cell for 33 hours.
Days later, he learned that Sharlene Ware had filed a civil suit in federal court alleging that Kaplowitz and the school system had violated her child's civil rights. She said her boy suffered frequent migraine headaches and nightmares as a result of his fall. She wanted $20 million.
In March 2002, the criminal case went to trial.
Kaplowitz's defenders -- including teachers, parents and students -- said he often showed his frustration and sometimes yelled and even cursed, but never manhandled children. Some parents and students said Kaplowitz indeed touched students, but no one saw him hurt Raynard. Savoy did not testify; Kaplowitz has had no contact with her since his last day at Emery. Otis Lindsey, chief investigator for MVM Security, the company that handles school security, said he saw Raynard shortly after the alleged incident and found "no bruises, no knot on the head, no bleeding." He said the boy was not crying.
After six days of wildly contradictory testimony, with no evidence of injury to the boy, Kaplowitz was found not guilty. Superior Court Judge Frederick Dorsey said the criminal case was being driven by the Ware family's desire to win its civil suit. (Ware told me she would discuss the case, then did not return more than 30 phone messages over a two-month period.)
In December, over the objections of Kaplowitz and his lawyer, the D.C. school system settled Ware's civil suit; she got $90,000.
Seleznow sounds morose about the system's corporal-punishment policy, even though he supports its zero-tolerance approach. "You have to have human contact with kids," he says. "I know how I feel when the superintendent puts his hand on my shoulder, and I'm a 49-year-old adult. But out of fear of allegations, we have teachers who do not feel they can do that. It's very, very sad."
Especially sad, he says, is what Emery fell victim to that year: "When the climate is bad, there is a greater opportunity for allegations to be leveled. You have copycat sorts of things. It's very likely that that's what happened at Emery, and especially for the male teachers. It's often hysteria, and people's lives are ruined."
Who will push for change in the city's schools?
Many of Washington's most affluent and politically savvy citizens are childless. Many middle-class parents steer clear of the public schools -- they move to the suburbs or send their kids to parochial or private schools. (Sixty-five percent of students in the District's Catholic schools are not Catholic; 89 percent are black.) Or parents pull strings, stand in icy air overnight or play the new lottery to get their children into the system's best schools.
At places like Emery, it's an eternal struggle to get parents involved in the school's daily life. Many parents hold two jobs, some barely function themselves. Who will agitate for change there?
A few activists push for reform because they see good schools as essential to the city's renaissance. A few reformers inside the system dedicate themselves to the belief that every child deserves a great school. But the overhaul of a large, defensive, beleaguered system with a reputation for incompetence, corruption and neglect rests in good part on energetic newcomers like Kaplowitz and Ehrmann.
Both young men stood out at Emery. Both were deeply dissatisfied with the way the system serves students and with the burnout they saw among veteran teachers. Both insisted on trying something different, even though they saw that this was a system that feared and resisted change.
"In many ways, Josh's and my stories were the opposite poles of the same experience," says Ehrmann, who is heading to graduate school for sociology. "I dealt with a lot of the same emotions and resistances that he did, but we had very different years."
They also had very different experiences with Teach for America. Kaplowitz says he was dismissed as a troublemaker when he sought help, while Ehrmann says his TFA mentors offered useful criticism. (Teach for America executives won't discuss Kaplowitz. The program's Washington director, Miwa Powell, says TFA regularly observes its teachers and sponsors discussions throughout their teaching stints. Powell was happy to talk about Ehrmann; his success, she says, is much more typical.)
As for Emery, it has a new crop of novice teachers this year, and Anne Jackson, the new principal, shows them off proudly. Four of them are young white women, and that goes unspoken as the principal touts their backgrounds.
"Emery still has a long way to go," Seleznow acknowledges, but he's hopeful that Jackson will find the right teachers and let them build their own little worlds. Jackson grew up near Emery; her younger sister attended the school. But she did not -- she wasn't permitted to, because in segregated Washington, Emery was a white school.
PTA president Walcott says Jackson has restored order. But Walcott has sent two of her own children to Hyde charter school because "Hyde doesn't have to tolerate stuff like DCPS does. They don't have to just sit there if a child is continually disruptive. They don't just pass children along like they made Mr. Kaplowitz do. The children know what the rules and expectations are."
Despite Emery's difficulties, Ehrmann says he "found my life's work" there in 2001. He taught at Emery one more year, then devoted himself to Project 312. He raised money from philanthropists, arranged tutoring for his kids, took them on an overnight trip. Since leaving, Ehrmann has worked to get several of his students into charter schools, where he thinks they'll find the attention and high expectations they need.
But 18 of his students are still at Emery, and some are on their third teacher this school year. Ehrmann believes Emery is getting better, but he has no illusions that the D.C. schools have turned any corner. "You graduate 54 percent of your [high school] kids every year," he says, "that's a dead system."
Kaplowitz has not been back to Emery since he was fired; nonetheless, he is convinced that little has improved there: "Man, they ought to just bulldoze it. What a disaster."
Since leaving the schools, he has worked as a paralegal at the law firm that defended him in the Ware case, and he teaches SAT-prep courses in Arlington. He wrote an article for a New York policy journal about his star-crossed year at Emery, and he's trying to sell a book about his ordeal. He's looking for a TV network to buy his story. He still believes in Teach for America. Like Ehrmann, he wants to go to graduate school and devote himself to education reform.
"My biggest regret is that I failed the kids," Kaplowitz says. "I could have been a good teacher. The few moments I was in control, it was such a high to impart knowledge."
There is a mystery to the craft of the most effective teachers. Even amid a national obsession with finding concrete measures of teaching success, Steve Seleznow knows that great teaching is something "you sense and feel." Watching Kaplowitz and Ehrmann teach, he knew immediately that Kaplowitz's relationship with his students was "a series of very, very poor interactions," while "Nick Ehrmann was the kind of teacher who could just communicate with kids without talking to them, with just the glance of an eye. Josh, I guess, just didn't have a heart for the children. And to be fair, there aren't that many Nick Ehrmanns in the world."
Patricia Vest argues that Josh Kaplowitz did exactly what Teach for America is supposed to do -- cling to high expectations and "refuse to accept that these children can't learn. In the D.C. schools, people are complacent, and Josh was really trying to take our children to a different level."
Jackson, Emery's new principal, says she is eager to hire more Teach for America teachers. She wants that energy,that confidence to do your own thing. Sometimes it will work out, and sometimes it won't. But they'll be trying, some like Kaplowitz and some like Ehrmann.