James Albright, principal of the largest and most coveted middle school in the District, bristles when he hears “Alice Deal for All.”
That’s the slogan Muriel E. Bowser (D) used in 2013-2014 when she was running for D.C. mayor on a promise to strengthen the city’s middle schools. She held up Alice Deal Middle as the model for others.
But the idea that the city can create an Alice Deal for every student strikes Albright as simplistic. He believes middle schools across the city will only get better if educators focus solely on the needs of their students and parents, not on trying to emulate other schools.
“You can’t just take Alice Deal and dump it some place,” the school’s principal said in an interview. “You have to listen to what the community around that school wants.”
Those are some of Albright’s parting thoughts as he ends his tenure next week. The 53-year-old educator announced in late May that he will step down after nine years at the school, the last six as principal. Albright, who has cystic fibrosis, cited a need to focus on his health.
Parents and community members say they were devastated to hear of Albright’s resignation. They credit him with taking a well-regarded school to new heights.
“He is a great leader for the school, and I am really sad that he is leaving,” said Lori Jackson, Deal’s PTA president. “But he is leaving Deal in a really, really good place.”
Albright is the longest-serving middle school principal in the city, with the exception of the principal of Columbia Heights Educational Campus, which serves grades 6 through 12. Like other urban school systems, D.C. Public Schools often struggles to retain school leaders, especially in middle and high schools. Leadership continuity is considered essential to creating a strong environment where teachers want to teach and parents want to send their children.
“He is a very talented principal, without questions, but stability matters,” said Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education whose children attended Deal. “That’s a lot of years to know a school, and every year you are able to get better and better at what you do.”
Abdullah Zaki, principal of Dunbar High School, has been in DCPS as an administrator for over a decade, including at a middle school. He said Deal is not likely to suffer with the loss of its principal, because its faculty and programs will continue. Deal has had just seven principals, including Albright, since it opened in the 1930s. Their portraits hang in the school’s hallway. That’s an average tenure of 12 years per principal. By contrast, many other schools in the District have churned through several principals in the past decade.
“What you are doing is making sure that all those things stay the same but get better,” Zaki said.
By some measures, Deal stands apart in DCPS. Many think of it as the gold-standard middle school in the District. The school is in a redbrick building with towering columns at its entrance on a quiet hill near the Tenleytown Metro station in upper Northwest Washington.
Albright said he worries the attention Deal gets is “sucking the air” out of other schools that are working to get better.
Many DCPS middle schools struggle to attract families to enroll after their children leave elementary school. Deal, on the other hand, has hundreds of parents put it at the top of their wish list in the citywide school lottery. With 1,476 students in sixth through eighth grade, Deal educates nearly a quarter of all DCPS students in those grades. About a third of its students live outside the school’s boundaries, and many more want to attend. It has a waiting list of more than 500 students for next school year.
The school boasts some of the highest scores on citywide math and reading tests, a demanding International Baccalaureate program, and a wide variety of clubs and extracurricular activities.
The city is paying to add more clubs and extracurriculars at other middle schools so students there can also enjoy the robotics, coding and sports clubs Deal has long offered. Private donations from parents help fund some of those activities at Deal, but Albright has also asked teachers to volunteer time to ensure students can participate.
Deal is not representative of the District’s population. Among middle schools, Deal has the lowest share of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because they live in poverty. About 6 percent, or 87 students, came from low-income households this year, according to city data. The average for DCPS middle schools was 51 percent.
Albright, who is described by parents as humble, thoughtful and outspoken, said some think he has it made because he has a stable teaching force and doesn’t have some of the same struggles with poverty as other schools.
“There are some parts of my job that I have easier than some, without a doubt,” Albright said. “But you can take a great group of kids and squander it, too.”
Albright, who lives in Annandale, Va., said Deal has had its lows and highs, and that it, too, struggled to recruit students about a decade ago. He joined the school in the 2008-2009 school year as the IB coordinator. The school, like the entire system, was undergoing massive changes.
Melissa Kim, then the principal, got rid of the honors program at Deal because it had the unintended effect of increasing segregation within the school. Many of the white students were in honors courses; many of the minority students were not.
It was Albright’s job to start the IB program, which would deliver rigorous coursework to all students. In that position, he standardized how teachers assessed students so the school had an accurate picture of how well students were learning.
He told teachers they should not give extra-credit work or participation grades, because that doesn’t help educators understand how much students are learning.
He bolstered the world language program at the school, which now employs more than a dozen foreign language teachers, more than are found at many high schools.
Albright credits his teachers and those changes for the school’s success. But he believes the school is still not where it needs to be.
Last year, 63 percent of Deal students met reading standards on the city’s PARCC tests. Fifty percent met math standards.
“I know there are some schools where zero percent passed, and that’s a different issue, but we can’t look back and celebrate, because we still failed half our kids,” Albright said of the math results.
This year, Albright sought to put a stronger emphasis on math and reading instruction. In the coming school year, it’ll be up to Diedre Neal to continue that work. Neal, now an assistant principal, will become interim principal once Albright steps down.
Albright said he will spend at least several months focusing on his health. At 15, he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening disease that can lead to loss of lung function and chronic infections.
When Albright proposed to his wife almost 30 years ago, he didn’t expect to live long. Many who have the disease don’t live past their 30s.
“I always thought I would have five good years,” he said.
Working in a school — where there were often sick students and teachers — could have further jeopardized his health. But Albright ignored that risk because he wanted to change students’ lives.
“I never wanted to limit my life,” Albright said. “There are a million ways to go through things, and I found my way to do it.”
But now, walking around the school building has become increasingly exhausting. Some days, getting up one flight of stairs takes a toll on Albright. He said his lung function has dropped 50 percent since he started working at the school, and he may soon need a lung transplant.
Despite the seriousness of his illness, Albright doesn’t want pity. He is quick to point out that his “brain still functions.”
“You don’t make long-term plans,” he said. “You just make plans that are useful and powerful for your life right now.”