• U.S.

Education: Getting Tough

23 minute read
Ezra Bowen

If tough love is your thing, you can find a lot to love about Joe Clark. Bullhorn cradled in one arm, a stack of books and papers resting in the other, the 48-year-old principal of Eastside High in down-at-the-heels Paterson, N.J. (pop. 140,000), charms and bullies his way through the bustling corridors of his ordered domain like an old-time ward boss, relishing every step. He pinches girls on their cheeks, slaps high fives with both boys and girls, greeting most by name.

“That a new hairdo, Tanya?” he asks one girl. “I like it. You’re looking like a stone fox.” “Give me some,” he says, dipping his hand into an open bag of corn chips that an admiring boy is holding. “I need the quick energy.” Walking through the senior lounge, the principal greets Denise Baker, who has just won a $20,000 scholarship, with some approving Clark doggerel: “If you can conceive it, you can believe it, and you can achieve it.” Denise loves it. In fact virtually all the kids seem to revel in the style of the man they privately call “Crazy Joe.” More than a few look to him for help: a Hispanic girl approaches to whisper that she needs a winter coat. “I’ll get you one,” vows the principal, scribbling her name on a pad.

“In this building,” Clark proclaims, “everything emanates and ultimates from me. Nothing happens without me.” He spots a sign hanging askew over the girls’ rest room: “I want that fixed expeditiously,” he snaps at a bemused janitor. Attempting to enter a classroom, Clark finds a locked door, rattles the knob; and when the teacher opens, he bluntly orders her to undo the lock. Her response is too slow for Clark: “I said, unlock that door!” he snaps, right in front of her pupils. Clearly, this is a man who believes that if something is wrong, get tough about it — now. And when the troops do not march smartly to the resident drummer, retribution follows. Smartly.

Clark has proved that time and again since arriving at Eastside in 1982, after 20 years as a teacher and elementary school principal in Paterson. The school, with a student body of 3,200 — nearly all black and Hispanic and about a third from families on welfare — was then crawling with pushers, muggers and just about every other species of juvenile thug. Pot smoke blew out of broken windows. Graffiti marred the walls. Doors were damaged. Teachers were afraid to come to work. Clark, a former Army Reserve sergeant, took quick action. He chained doors against pushers and threatened any strays that might leak through with a baseball bat, a 36-in. Willie Mays Big Stick that still rests in a corner of his office. Bellowing through the bullhorn and the school’s p.a. system, he banned loitering, mandated keep-to-the-right and keep-moving rules for the corridors, and set up a dress code forbidding hats and any gangish or come-on clothing. Students who got to school late or cut class could expect latrine or graffiti-scrubbing duty. Says Clark: “Discipline is the ultimate tenet of education. Discipline establishes the format, the environment for academic achievement to occur.”

Clark’s brand of discipline is often harsh. On a single day in his first year, he threw out 300 students for being tardy or absent and, he said, for disrupting the school. “Leeches and parasites,” he calls such pupils. Over the next five years he tossed out hundreds more. Faculty members hostile to $ his vision were dismissed or strongly encouraged to leave. During his six-year tenure some 100 have departed, including a basketball coach who was hustled out by security guards for failing to stand at attention during the singing of the school alma mater. “I expurgated them through a vast variety of methods,” says Clark, savoring his idiosyncratic polysyllables.

Some people thought that Clark’s expurgations had gone too far. In a typically unilateral action, the pugnacious principal last month tossed out 66 “parasitic” students without due process or approval of the school board, insisting that they were “hoodlums, thugs and pathological deviants.” The board blew the whistle, charging him with insubordination and threatening him with dismissal.

Almost overnight that local spat found its way onto front pages all across the U.S. The Eastside story — Clark’s battle to restore order in his school — became a kind of allegory for all the tribulations, dangers and scattered triumphs of cities large and small, where public education is undergoing its most severe challenge. In a country fed up with kids out of control, Clark seems to represent one effort to return to the law-and-order of a more innocent time. In recent weeks the Paterson principal has found himself not only the subject of network news reports but also a sought-after guest on TV talk shows. CBS’s 60 Minutes has shot a segment on the maverick educator, and Warner Bros. has snapped up the rights to his life story (“six figures,” plus a percentage of the net, for Joe), with Sidney Poitier as a possible star. “Isn’t it something,” Clark beams, “that this little black Newark welfare boy is the most popular man in America right now?”

The bat-wielding principal has even caught the eye and ear of the White House. President Reagan has commended Clark as an exemplar of the tough leadership needed in urban schools. In the wake of the board battle, U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett telephoned to urge Clark to “hang in there.” In an even grander gesture of support, Gary Bauer, a former Bennett aide now serving as White House Policy Development Director, offered Eastside’s chief a White House post as policy adviser. (Clark turned him down.) Tough leaders like Clark have an important place in the nation’s schools, Bennett told the press a few weeks ago. “Sometimes you need Mr. Chips, sometimes you need Dirty Harry.”

The attention surrounding Clark has pushed a long-simmering academic debate $ about urban education into prime time, where it rightly belongs. Two decades of wrenching societal changes in family structure, in drug and alcohol use among teens, in the level of violence in inner cities, plus widespread parental indifference have undermined urban schools. “We have allowed the school situation to disintegrate to the extent that it calls for drastic measures, and therefore, Joe Clark,” says Los Angeles Principal George McKenna, who, like Clark, has been singled out for praise by Secretary Bennett. “The ultimate challenge will be whether schools whose students face these pathologies can in fact become more stable and academically successful,” says Ernest Boyer, former U.S. Commissioner of Education and President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The dire condition of the nation’s urban school systems is by now a familiar story, but some hard facts and illuminating incidents bear telling :

— In Detroit, high school dropout rates are 41%, with 80% in the worst inner- city districts.

— In St. Louis, 1 of 4 girls in public schools becomes pregnant before reaching her senior year.

— In Boston schools last year, 55 students were expelled for carrying guns and 2,500 must report to police probation officers for past offences.

— In Chicago, an open house for the parents of 1,000 pupils at Sherman School drew five mothers and fathers.

— In Texas, the 100 top-ranked school districts spend an average of $5,500 a year per child, while the bottom 100 spend only $1,800. The results are evident in San Antonio’s Edgewood district, one of the state’s poorest, where 50% of students fall below the national norms in reading and writing.

— In Philadelphia, an administrator describes conditions at an inner-city school: “People coming to class high, not just pupils but teachers as well; filthy bathrooms; gang intimidation; nowhere to hang coats without them being stolen.”

— In New York two weeks ago, Principal Edward Morris asked for a transfer from Park West High, where he had clearly lost control of violence-prone students, and where students in the cafeteria stomped a girl so brutally they broke her ribs.

In many schools these realities blend into a panoply of horrors for teachers and administrators. Odette Dunn Harris, principal of William Penn High School in Philadelphia, talks of confiscating crack bags from student pushers in a neighborhood torn by gang wars and racial strife. When she first arrived at the school, “they had riots in the lunchroom. The fire gong used to go off every five minutes, and that was the cue for the kids to break out.” Some youngsters still carry knives and guns as casually as pocket combs. One parent assaulted her, and she notes, “I’ve had kids say to me, ‘I’m going to punch you,’ or they call me ‘that bald-headed bitch’ because of my short hair.”

At Principal McKenna’s Washington Preparatory High in Los Angeles just two weeks ago, three female students, about to cross the street to enter the schoolyard, were wounded in the sudden cross fire of a gang ambush. Says McKenna: “I personally buried six young men last year who had gone to this school, and I do the same thing year after year.”

In the face of such grim conditions, Joe Clark has found himself the touchstone of a rekindled national debate about how to put things right in a city schoolhouse gone wrong. In the words of P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College at Columbia University: “Joe Clark brings out a lot of broad issues that may not have clear answers.” While raising issues, however, Clark has also raised a forest of hackles for like a lot of people who do things their own way and damn the torpedoes, Clark has stirred up as many critics as admirers. And in the wake of his confrontation with his school board, he has found himself under a drumfire of criticism by other inner-city principals who take issue with his hardhanded style.

“If I had to go around with a baseball bat in one hand and a megaphone in the other, I’d sell insurance,” blasts Boston Principal Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. (no relation to the former Speaker of the House), who has turned the once troubled Lewenberg middle school into a nationally recognized center of excellence. “Clark’s use of force may rid the school of unwanted students,” he notes, “but he also may be losing kids who might succeed.” Others claim Clark’s autocratic approach to discipline suggests that there is a quick solution to complex problems. “He seeds the myth that all we have to do is stop kids from knifing each other,” snaps Deborah Meier, who won a $335,000 MacArthur Genius grant for her inspired supervision of Harlem’s Central Park East schools.

In Los Angeles, McKenna is no less critical. “We want to fix the schools, but you don’t do that by seeing the kids as the enemy,” he rumbles. “Our role is to rescue and to be responsible,” McKenna insists, adding bitterly, “If the students were not poor black children, Joe Clark would not be tolerated.”

Many civil libertarians join in the criticism. Says Edward Martone, executive director of the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union: “If every inner-city principal took the Joe Clark tack, they’d just throw one-third of their student body into the street. At best those kids are going to get minimum-wage jobs. At worst they’re going to end up committing crimes and being incarcerated.”

On the other hand, many people, both educators and laymen, have rushed to defend Clark. They emphasize that his tough methods are justified by the tough problems he faces. “You cannot use a democratic and collaborative style when crisis is rampant and disorder reigns,” insists Kenneth Tewel, a former New York high school principal who now teaches school administration at Queens College. “You need an autocrat to bring things under control.” Raymond Gerlik, principal of DeWitt C. Cregier Vocational High in Chicago, thinks Clark did what he had to do. “I sympathize with the guy,” he says. “I don’t have a bullhorn, but maybe he needed one.” William Penn Principal Harris, who managed to purge the gangs from her school, praises Clark’s character. “Here is a principal with principles. He is trying to develop strong, independent, law-abiding citizens and is trying to provide the students with a safe, secure place to learn, and for this he is going to be nailed to the wall.”

Clark’s way of sparing no rod nor spoiling any child has touched many other hearts. Supportive letters have poured into his office. A professor’s wife from Erie, Pa., tells Clark his philosophy and style are just right; a mother of two from Queens, N.Y., approves of his tough line; and a senior citizen from Olympia, Wash., writes simply, “I wish we had a few more like you.” Many of the letters contain money — in amounts from $2 to $100 — for Clark’s defense fund. This past week brought some big bucks. Jack Berdy, chairman and CEO of On-Line Software, a computer company in Fort Lee, N.J., pledged $1 million in scholarships to Eastside over the next ten years, on the condition that the board resolve its conflict with the principal. “I think dismissal is inappropriate for a man who has brought so much to that school,” says Berdy.

Clearly, discussions of Clark’s approach to taming the blackboard jungle run high with emotion. Cooler-headed critics — and fans — suggest that the best ( method of evaluating what he or any other educator has done is to look at the achievements of his students. In Clark’s case the record is mixed. No question that he cleaned up the graffiti, kicked out the pushers, restored order. But academic triumphs have been more elusive. While math scores are up 6% during Clark’s reign, reading scores have barely budged: they remain in the bottom third of the nation’s high school seniors. While a few more students are going to college — 211, up from 182 in 1982 — Clark has lost considerable ground in the battle against dropouts: when he arrived, Eastside’s rate was 13%; now it is 21%.

Moreover, as his critics point out, any principal can raise test scores and cut disciplinary problems by tossing out the troublesome low achievers. But this hardly represents a solution to a community’s problems. Rather, it just moves those problems from the classroom onto the street, where the dropouts drift into trouble or plain despair. “In many cases the school was the most stabilizing factor in their lives,” says Alcena Boozer, head of an outreach program for dropouts in Portland, Ore. “Then that’s gone, and nothing’s there.”

Paterson, like too many other school districts, has no alternative programs for the losers, most of whom simply vanish into a festering underclass of unemployables. Nationally the dropout rate for the past three years has hovered around 1 million — the equivalent of dumping the entire pupil population of New York City, biggest in the U.S., onto the nation’s trash heap every year. Very few ever drop back in. Most of the others are lost forever, not only to the school system but to society at large. The battle to prevent those losses has never been more difficult. Old-style pedagogy simply does not work when the climate both inside and outside the schoolhouse is one of paralyzing despair. Inner-city educators speak of a “ghetto mentality,” in which very little is expected of students — by parents, teachers and others. Students quickly learn to match those expectations. “Schools knew how to succeed with kids who wanted to succeed,” observes President Timpane of Teachers College. “It’s only in the past generation that we’ve had the challenge of trying to succeed with individuals who didn’t want to succeed or didn’t even want to be in the classroom.”

Despite such daunting hurdles, in a few of the roughest districts a handful of schools have managed to become islands of excellence. They did so primarily by establishing high expectations and by getting across the conviction that their kids can and will meet those expectations. No less vital to their success, in almost every case, has been a bold, enduring principal — if not a Joe Clark, then a different kind of strong personality with his or her own talents as manager and leader. The best of these leaders are able to maintain or restore order without abandoning the students who are in trouble. They approach their staffs, students, parents and communities with a cooperative rather than a confrontational style. “Every good school has a good principal,” insists William Kristol, chief of staff for Secretary Bennett. “He can set the general tone, the spirit, the ethos if you will, of the school. He can give it a sense of order, enthusiasm for learning and high expectations.”

Establishing clear rules is priority No. 1 for many of these principals. Albert Holland, who turned Jeremiah E. Burke High in Boston from one of the city’s most dangerous schools into what District Superintendent Charles Gibbons calls an “absolute jewel,” began with this set of rules: “In class on time; no hats; no Walkman in school; a student roaming the corridors without a pass is written up immediately and given a warning.” His neighbor, Principal O’Neill at Lewenberg, set up equally simple standards. “The first order was to maintain control of the hallways, so we put in quiet, single- filing lines. Students go to their lockers at the beginning of the day. An assignment left in a locker is a missed assignment. Bathroom passes are issued only during the first ten minutes of class.”

In Chicago, Marva Collins has brought order and learning — and national acclaim — to Westside Preparatory School with her own brand of rules. Chewing gum is out: “If they insist on chewing gum, we have them do a paper on the etymology of the word gum.” Any cocky youngster who walks into Westside with a defiant swagger, or wearing gang jewelry, gets special treatment: “I put my arm on their shoulder and say, ‘Darling, is your hip broken?’ Or, ‘You’re going to have to take out that earring.’ “

The second priority is curriculum, with the teachers to make it work. Maria Tostado, principal of Los Angeles’ Garfield High, which twelve years ago had sunk to the brink of losing its accreditation, helps maintain the place as a scholar factory by mixing rules with demanding classes: “We phased out the bonehead courses and put in more advanced, challenging courses.” Garfield now – boasts 15 advanced-placement teachers in subjects such as calculus and physics. This year 370 students are taking the advanced-placement exams for college credit.

Among the faculty who motivate the high achievers is Jaime Escalante, a math instructor whom Tostado praises as a “teaching genius.” He is all of that — a showman, math scholar, father figure and cheerleader. Each Escalante class starts with warm-up music (We Will Rock You) and hand clapping as pupils ceremonially drop yesterday’s homework into a basket. Advanced-placement students proudly wear T shirts and satin jackets proclaiming their membership in the elite, college-bound corps. During lectures, Escalante bounces around the room, challenging, explaining, applauding.

Tostado remains in awe of her fiery star, to whom she credits much of the school’s renaissance: “He calls parents every time someone doesn’t show up in class,” she says. “He visits parents when they get home from work to get them to sign his contracts pledging hours of extra homework. He spends summers poring over the school records to find recruits for his classes like he was a coach.” As a result of such dedication, 70% of last year’s graduating class was accepted by colleges — a stunning score for a former gangland satrapy.

At Suitland High in downtrodden Suitland, Md., Principal Joseph Hairston also prizes his teachers, recruited from schools all over the country. He treats them with respect as part of what he calls the “corporate style” and says he wants to “professionalize the workplace.” Lately he has been lobbying for across-the-board raises. Hairston believes in discipline (which he prefers to call “reality therapy”) and has greatly diversified the curriculum — “from dance to drafting,” even to Russian. Under such policies reading scores have soared into the 87th percentile nationally from a dismal 28th. Math scores are up from 60% to 85%. This miracle has been pulled off in a mere year and a half, which, Hairston claims, is plenty of time “if you have an organizational structure, economy and support; if you know what you want to do and how to do it.” Last week President Reagan saluted the school’s success by paying a visit.

Talented administrators and teachers elsewhere often create special incentives to motivate students. At Eastern High in Washington, Ralph Neal, who was named one of the top ten U.S. principals by the National School Safety Center, rewards good grades and attendance records by publishing the information in the Washington Post and taking an oustanding youngster to lunch each month at a good Capitol Hill restaurant — where he also fetes his teacher of the month.

At Lewenberg in Boston, Principal O’Neill has designed, as a colorful celebration of reading achievements, a twin-tailed Chinese dragon stretching across the entrance to the school’s two wings. Students begin each day of the year by reading aloud. And every afternoon, everyone in the school — including secretaries, administrators, security aides and teachers — ends the day by reading silently. Anyone who finishes a novel gets to add a piece of paper to the dragon’s tail, with the title of the book and the reader’s name. With five months left in the school year, the dragon already stretches about three-quarters of the way down the corridors.

Parent participation is another priority for these bellwether principals. Rubye McClendon, who heads the dazzling, $20 million, virtually all-black magnet school, Benjamin E. Mays High in middle-class southwest Atlanta, put on a special celebration two weeks ago for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, attended by, among others, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, whose son goes to the school. Around McClendon, however, Young is just another father who is aware that the principal expects his participation at the school. “Parents are the key to discipline,” says McClendon, “and they must know what’s going on. We send the syllabus home, and the parents must initial it.”

A final point of strategy among principals is to fight the curse of student anonymity in big urban schools. Washington Prep’s McKenna is one who believes in person-to-person contact, not only from faculty to student but among the pupils. “The academically advanced should, and at my school do, provide tutoring for the less able,” he says. ” ‘Hey, brother, I love you.’ That’s a stronger philosophy, and there is nothing wimpy about it.” He also believes in pressing the flesh in the schoolyard, and some of that flesh is mighty big. In the hallway between fifth and sixth periods, a young giant with a dazzling, ear-to-ear smile engulfs McKenna in a hug and announces he has just been declared academically eligible to play basketball. McKenna grins and admonishes him to keep up his grades. “You hear me, now,” he says, shaking his finger at the youngster, who towers over him.

Educators wish that charismatic principals like these — and their methods % of creating an environment for learning — were the norm in embattled urban schools across America. But they are rare exceptions, unreachable for the majority of America’s urban pupils. Says Winifred Green, president of the Southern Coalition for Educational Equality in Jackson, Miss.: “I would move to any city in the country and send my kids to public school if I could pick the school. They are not all even.”

A few districts are trying to salvage pupils with alternative opportunities, either inside the schools or outside in other facilities. Two years ago Burke Principal Holland in Boston instituted a program called Lifeline for students who are repeating ninth or tenth grade. Three separate classrooms at Burke house some 45 repeaters, who study three core subjects — English, math and science — for longer than usual periods. They move only among those three rooms, switching classes at intervals different from the rest of the school. “It is a mechanism so that we don’t put 19-year-olds in ninth-grade classrooms next to 14-year-olds,” says Holland. When the repeaters catch up, they will be moved back into regular classes or sent to alternative programs like Jobs for Youth, which combine work with study.

Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, who has just been named president of the University of Tennessee system, promotes an in-school suspension system that he brought in as Governor as part of his “Better Schools Program” in 1982. Trouble makers booted out of regular classes are sent to designated rooms. There, they must continue to study under the guidance of a disciplinarian like the football coach, or someone else with a touch of intimidation, until they have shaped up for re-entry into regular classes. “This way, getting kicked out is not a free ride,” he explains. Alexander, along with Secretary Bennett and others, also believes in allowing youngsters to select their schools. In Memphis, for example, students can pick any school in the city. “Once they have made a choice, you know they want to be there,” he says.

In too many cities, however, the choice may be between one dreadful school or another that is mediocre, barely supported by penurious budgets, neglected by parents and politicians, beset by gang rumbles, drug trafficking and other social ills. Says Allan Weinberg, assistant director for reading and English- language arts in Philadelphia: “Schools reflect society. You must always remember that.” And American society has left these schools, and the students in them, to struggle on their own.

Clearly, time has run out for such neglect. Says Boston Principal Holland: “Schools can’t educate alone. They used to be isolated, but now the problems are so magnified that it takes the family, it takes the school, it takes the community all working together to make education possible.” Top educators emphasize that the commitment must be nationwide and backed by consistent Federal Government support. All the wonderful, well-meaning spot programs designed to help underachievers or trouble makers really amount to no more than Band-Aids applied to the lucky few. Fortunately, after proposing cuts in the national education budget in six of its seven years, the Reagan Administration has begun to appreciate the stakes. This year education is one of the few areas where funding will be increased. In his State of the Union address, the President is expected to announce a billion-dollar boost for the 1989 Department of Education budget.

The Carnegie Foundation’s Boyer believes such federal action comes at the eleventh hour. “This nation cannot survive with any sense of strength or confidence if half our students in urban areas remain economically, socially and civically unprepared,” he says. Public education is now on trial in America, and many educators feel that the decade ahead may be the last real chance for the nation’s schools. That is, without doubt, the most urgent lesson that Principal Joe Clark can teach.


CREDIT: TIME Charts by Cynthia Davis


DESCRIPTION: Most important school discipline problems in 1940s and in 1980s.


CREDIT: TIME Charts by Cynthia Davis


DESCRIPTION: Minority population, dropout rate, assaults, number of counselors in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and St. Louis school systems.

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