Summertime and the student learning loss is easy… Part 1

Growing up in Brooklyn NY, I was always suspicious of a saying I often heard: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you!” (And who started that anyway?) I did not believe that saying because I spent too much time at the Brooklyn: Public Library, Museum, Botanical Gardens, Children’s Museum, Prospect park, Zoo; along with my gifted middle school program experience, that exposed us to so many of the cities rich cultural institutions; and not to mention our daily reading of the NY Times in social studies. I truly believed that not knowing was a self-caused fatal deficiency! “Knowing”, seemed to offer an advantage in life; “knowing” causes one to interact with a sense of confidence and power in the world, an attitude not enjoyed by the uninitiated “not knowing” citizenry. This concept of the: Power of Knowing and wanting to know, that I adopted as a young child; and how the knowing, information enriched folks exercised power; while the knowledge poor folks; those with less of, or not wanting to know attitudes; lived a life of powerlessness at the mercy of the powerful. This idea, has remained one of the cornerstones of my educational philosophy, to this day.

Well summer learning loss, is a situation where: What a parent does not know will definitely hurt their child! Another suspicion I have is how the “achievement gap” is framed and explained. The common working definition wrongly suggest a “running race” model, where there is some fair and equal academic achievement starting line for White affluent-entitled kids, and the Black, Latino and poor kids of any color; and then the “smarter” White affluent-entitled kids academically out-sprint everybody else.

The truth is that the race is rigged; the winners and losers are determined before the race begins; the starting points are not now, or have ever been equal. Meanwhile, during the course of this “academic achievement race”, hurdles are placed in the running lanes of the disenfranchised children. Imagine an Olympic or any sporting event where the outcome was determined before the start of the event? Where one team or athlete had an open unfair advantage. Would fans lose interest, I think so; after all a chief marketing theme of the NFL is: “On any given Sunday, any team can win!” But not in education, the game is fixed, so that on any given school day, only one team always wins!

What we don’t tell parents…

All professions have: hidden, obscure, secrets, rules, information-knowledge; and develops a confusing (to the lay person) vocabulary and language. One reason for these essential qualities is that they allow the professional to ask for compensation (money) for their services. But this idea can at times go terribly wrong; as it often does in the education profession where there are large numbers of parents who don’t know how the real rules of: “Parent Engagement” work. Now much of this not knowing is “professionally contrived and created”, on purpose, as parents are cynically mislead into thinking that “parent power” is doing things like serving on a school budget committee; or, serving on a school personnel committee, and “picking” a teacher or a principal. With all of these “parent involvement” activities, school systems nationally and rationally, have a built in “veto mechanism” that can nullify any parent “decision”! Now, the reason school districts do “parent involvement” in this way is because it makes parents feel good, and it keeps them quiet. Parent “quietness” is a highly sought after goal in public education!

The truth we don’t tell parents (well, some of us don’t tell); is that the most important objective of this entire K-12 exercise, is that your child emerges at the end of the process as an academically-socially-morally- emotionally-empowered, successful human being. And that the real and most effective Parent Engagement activities, those parental involvement activities that are essential to realizing student success; does not involve the parent serving on committees, selling cookies and candy, or “managing” the school; rather it is the parent effectively managing the out of school, and in school behaviors, habits, attitudes and practices toward learning, of their child!

Some parents in this nation have essentially raised this “awareness” to an art-science; and thus the tremendous academic success of their children. For 11 years as an urban high school principal, there were some parents who never ventured to tell me how to run the school. Their only question: “What do you need me to do to make my child successful?” And: “What do you need my child to do to be successful?” (“And I will make sure that they do it!”) All of those students “over-performed”. On the other hand I have had the parents of failing, underachieving, and terribly underperforming students; state nicely, and very often not so nicely, that I did not know what I was doing! Their children, often picking up their “cues” of disrespect from the parent, always under-performed. How many parent-teacher-principal meetings have I held where the parent can’t resist telling either the teacher or me; in front of the child, that we don’t know what we are doing. Why would the child listen to us after hearing that? The second most important parent involvement activity is for the parent to manage the informal educational program experience, such that it compliments and enriches the formal education program.

Divided yet codependent learning activities…

To break down the very complex “child learning” process, into two general categories. There is formal learning, which takes place at school; and then there is informal learning that includes places like public libraries, aquariums, museums, nature walks, stamp collecting, theater, scouting, dance, music, art lessons, STEM camps, creative writing, educational games & toys, chess playing, and reading for fun, etc. Now my Deweyian (John Dewey) instincts causes me to have a problem with the division between these two modes of learning; but that is a discussion for another day. It is enough to say that a child’s learning does not end when they exit the school building. It is also important to note that these two learning systems are inseparable; however they are only formally measured (tested) in the formal school system! In fact, the Pre-K or K-3 “gifted and talented” admissions exams/process, is almost always a test of the level of the parent’s level of education, and their informal education management skills. The AP, ACT & SAT are very much measurements of the culmination of informal education learning (including informal-formal test-taking skills training), plus the amount and quality of formal education learning. And those students who have “chosen” parents who understand these concepts, will most likely excel in the public education system. This is combined with doing other things like being able to effectively, and successfully advocate/navigate their child through the system by finding schools where high expectation and expertise are the organizational standards; and even negotiating the child’s admission to a particular teacher’s class inside of a school! (As a superintendent I have had parents show up at my office, to get their child’s class changed, if the principal did not comply with their wishes! After following up those meetings by first observing the class; and not being happy with what I saw; I often wondered: “Why the heck are the other class parents not staging a similar “sit-in” in my office?)

I never had a “free” summer…

As a young child I was on a summer “learning program” of so many hours of reading, academic workbooks my mother purchased, the YMCA’s culture-sports-arts day camp, my merit badge activities, the library, museums, my model train system in the basement, my stamp collection, my magazines: “Life & National Geographic”, my world war 2: model planes and ships, my science work: Ant farm, microscope/science kit during the day, and my telescope on the roof after dark, Police Athletic League, church activities and programs, summer academic enrichment program at P.S. 9, which included educational/cultural institutions trips and art activities, in middle school I had my summer saxophone lessons, a photography class, Overnight Boy Scout camping, trips to an upstate summer camp, a scholarship to a summer drama class, etc. In short I did not have a summer experience where I was just in the street playing, or in the house watching TV. At the same time, I don’t ever remember not enjoying my summer vacations.

Parents must organize their child’s summer learning experiences; and that includes pushing back against the protest of your child (they will thank you later!), and other adults, who neither understand anything about learning in general, nor about the power of informal education. Parents should also know that the effective “pushy parents”; may not feel obligated to share either the need for informal educational activities for your child, or where those activities exist. And so parents need to do their own local search for low cost or free summer learning experience activities. And even if they cost something, the investment is well worth it! I am amazed at the huge number of these programs for which many parents are unaware even exist. Every one with a phone has access to a search engine. Google or call your local-state government, universities, elected officials, cultural institutions, newspapers, school district, local library, private and community based organization for information on summer informal learning programs.

Your child’s school should provide a summer (informal education) resource learning guide for you, and/or a summer work/study packet for your child.
But if your child’s school does not distribute a summer study/learning package, contact the central district superintendent’s office, and request a grade appropriate packet from another school in the district that does provide these packets (This will also let you know what children in your child’s grade are learning at other schools!) Meanwhile a daily quiet reading for fun schedule, along with some time with the free mathematics learning tutorial programs ( i.e. or learning games online; can do a great deal to stop the summer loss syndrome. Over a K-8 time period the child can lose up to two years of cumulative learning; placing them at a terrible disadvantage when entering high school. I will from time to time post some resources for summer learning programs, but a good start is:

National Summer Learning Association…

In part 2 I want to specifically focus on high school students; and how they can use the summer, (due to their “independent” movement ability), as a period of promise for present and future empowerment.

Increasing the number of NYC Black and Latino students attending Specialized High schools: The new NYCDOE initiative* is a good step in the right direction, but we have a long, long way to go…

This is a good start in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. I say a good start in the right direction because this is the beginning of an acknowledgment that the solution (to the problem) is to at least make some changes in the child’s entire middle school experience. It has been misleading to tell parents and the public that professional educators can just wave a magic wand over the head of an 8th grader, and make them specialized (or any) high school test ready; this is a terribly dishonest claim.

To create real and permanent change; there must be equity in the quality of the K-8 formal and informal learning experiences of Black and Latino children. Sadly, there is no citywide plan to help the most capable (on and above grade level) Black and Latino students to be prepared to perform well at any high school. And if they move to a high school that mirrors their inadequate K-8 learning experience; their possibility to excel intellectually is further diminished.

The central problem is that the K-8 academic preparation is essentially unfair; thus the predictable “achievement gap” outcomes on the exam. Black and Latino high performers don’t have a fair chance to compete with their academic peers, who may have spent a great deal of time being exposed to a rigorous K-8 academic program. Further, many of the “entitled” students also enjoy the benefits of the parental resource, education and information gap; which is the driving force behind receiving a quality informal education experience (music-dance-art lessons, tutorials, cultural museum, library visits, etc.)

Also, attending “stable” schools, with productive and efficient learning environments; going from grade to grade, and being repeatedly exposed to certified, experienced, highly efficacious, and highly effective teachers, is of critical importance.

We don’t really know if the SHSAT is an “unfair” exam, if large numbers of students of color are unfairly eliminated early (before the 8th grade) from the competition. To make this present effort work, first (thinking about how much I spent as superintendent on a similar successful effort in CSD 29) much, much more money is needed. There is a need to expand the access to art, music, and dance and STEM activities in the child’s K-8 learning world (schools). Resources will be needed to hire additional middle school guidance counselors who can specifically focus on assisting students and their families in the best high school decision. These counselor could also help students and parents to access the rich informal educational resources of the city. More certified math and science teachers will be needed. Having students involved in activities like the Lego robotics program, chess and summer and after-school: STEM, Art, creative writing, etc. camps. More quality instructional time is needed, and a greater quality of instruction, mixed with high expectations, and highly thoughtful behaviors by principals and teachers are the keys to high student academic achievement.

I am not sure that a choice of attending a specialized high school is the best choice for every child; but better K-8 preparation will help every child who is exposed to it, no matter their high school choice. Further, schools will need to step-up, and close the parent resource-information gap. Don’t wait for the parent to provide that informal learning experience!

How to get away with freedom, just build an empire in your own neighborhood!

And so the school system, must build a powerful pipeline of well prepared for high school Black and Latino students. But that is a political problem that will require affirmative civil actions on the part of the parents and communities, whose primary responsibility is to protect those children. The level and quality of service a community receives for their tax dollars is based on their willingness to fight for that quality.


Finally, communities of color need to take their children’s educational futures into their own hands; nothing is stopping Blacks and Latinos from: Making their children study hard and read; from forming community based after-school-weekends academic prep schools; STEM, art, museum, learning centers, reading and computer clubs; making education and learning a priority, and not sneakers, clothes, the mathematically insane pro-sports “lottery”, and other silly distractions, the priorities in our children’s lives!

*New York City Announces New Initiatives to Increase Diversity at Specialized High Schools:

Michael A. Johnson is a former NYC Teacher, Principal and Superintendent.


“One principal, two schools, and a high-stakes experiment gone awry”–Chalkbeat

Make no mistake about it; we can’t be careful and cautious with schools that have large numbers of “at risk” students. For these students, applying “tentative”, indecisive, or scared tactics insures their educational, psychological, and often their physical deaths. We fail students if we are not: “Stretching”, “bending” and “braking” the rules every day; because the rules favor the entitled few, and not the disenfranchised many. But let me first define “at risk” from a professional educators perspective; since over time, some well, and not so well-meaning actors, have come forward to provide parents and society with an incomplete definition.

I would define an “at risk” high school student as:

 Any child whose family is not able to finance after-school, weekend, holiday break and summer break informal educational experiences. (i.e. Museum trips/programs, theater, summer public library visits, summer reading-study plan, science-art-dance-music summer camp, parent organized “mentoring” experience, “educational” summer job–internship, fencing, writing, STEM enrichment classes, etc.)

 Any child who is on the wrong (down) side of the parent education, information and financial resources gap.

 Any child who has only engaged in unsupervised “play”, for their K-8 summer breaks; who now upon arriving to high school is missing up to a cumulative school year of learning.

 Any child who has spent the majority of their K-8 school experience in “test-prep-factory” schools (all test prep, all of the time!) They will be horribly underexposed to art, music, and dance, reading for fun, STEM; intellectual and creativity building educational experiences. (Activities that ironically raises test scores!)

 Any child who has been “retained” (held over) somewhere in the K-8 school experience; the risk of not being successful in high school increases with the number of “held over” years.

 Any child arriving from outside of the US with “missing” school years.

 Any child for whom English is their second language.

 Any child arriving to school from another English speaking nation’s school system; but who is also struggling with ESL issues.

 Any child below proficiency, and barely “over the edge” of proficiency on K-8 standardized reading and mathematics exams.

 Any child whose parents lack the sufficient and necessary information, and who does not have access to the “inner” (inside) special knowledge of the “workings” of the US educational system; and therefore can’t properly advocate for their child.

 Any child whose parents are not fully conversant in the English language; or whose knowledge of the American system of education is not sufficient to protect and advance their child’s interest in that system.

 Any child who is living in a group home, who is homeless, who is living in temporary housing; or living temporarily or long-term with a family member.

 Any child who is chronically hungry, lacks adequate resources for clothing (seasonally appropriate clothing), shoes, sneakers, money for hygiene products, clean clothes; and the ability to pay for educational supplies and school experiences.

 Any child suffering, permanently or temporarily from a seriously chronic (academic-attendance challenging) disability, physically debilitating condition or disease.

 Any child who is the “de facto” adult in their house, and/or in their lives; any child who must take on all, or a major part of the parenting duties for younger siblings.

 Any child who is forced to work full or part-time so that the family can survive.

 Any child whose parents are “not functioning” due to an addiction, dysfunction, mental illness, incarceration, or just abandonment.

 Any child whose parents have essentially taken an unfortunate “parental responsibility” step too far back, when their child reaches high school.

 Any child who has been specifically abandoned by their mother.

 Any child (boy or girl) who is a biological parent.

 Any child who lives in a house that is unnaturally stressful and not peaceful; and a place not conducive to study.

 Any child who has/is being subject to mental or physical abuse.

 Any child who has officially engaged (i.e. probation) the criminal justice system.

 Any child whose parents lack the most productive and most effective communicative skills when engaging school staff.

 Any child whose parents have not equipped them with the “rubrics”, rules, techniques and communicative skills to properly negotiate and communicate with authority figures; and in the way in which they are able to effectively advance their personal interest.

 Any child with a diagnose or undiagnosed learning disability.

 Any child who is seeking to establish an identity, meaning, or seeking incorrectly to “self-heal” through the act of verbal or physical bullying.

 Any child who is attempting to “self-medicate”, close and heal wounds by way of alcohol, drugs or sex.

 Any child or parent who is living in the US in an “undocumented” status.

 Any child who must translate for their parents.

 Any child who is the first in their family to go to college.

 Any child who has been “academically detained” (and STEM restrained) by not having taken the 8th grade “gate keeper-stopper”: algebra.

 Any child who has “aged out”, but not graduated from middle school.

 Any child who unfortunately lives in a: “their education does not matter” zip code.

 Any child who unfortunately lives in a community where the elected, civic and religious leaders, don’t believe, understand (or seriously advocate for) the role of education as the primary tool of individual and community empowerment, and generational improvement.

 Any child who is part of a: racial group, ethnicity, gender, cultural profile, religion (or no religion or religious beliefs), economic status, who presently or historically faces discrimination, biases treatment and is subject to lowered service and expectations.

 Any child that must pass through a “gauntlet” of dangerous and despairing environmental conditions when traveling to, and back home from school.

 Any child who is part of the academically “under-potential” performing “near-do wells” student group. (a common resting place for Black and Latino males)

 Any child of color who defines things like: academic achievement, reading, interest in STEM, speaking English in a particular way, as “acting or being” White.

 Any child who unfortunately lives in a school district where that district is the primary source available (the main, or near the top) of the only way to gain personal income for the citizens of that community.

 Any child who lives in a community where the parents and residents are not effectively organized politically to protect the interest of their children.

 Any child who arrives to your school and has been exposed to the following:

 Consecutive (back to back) or repeated instructional years exposed to: a “1st year teacher”; an “uncertified teacher”; “long term substitute teacher”; a Black or Brown teacher with low self-esteem; a “retired (but still) on the job teacher”; a poorly practicing teacher, a biased, racist or discriminatory teacher; a teacher who engages in disinterest, and in low expectations.

 A previous learning environment that was disorderly, unsafe, disorganized, chaotic, unfocused; and that wasted a great deal of quality instructional time.

 A K-8 experience where the principal was a “Place holder”; and had no sense of a strategic vision, pedagogical competency, ethical-moral standards, and lacked courage and bravery.

 Any child who can’t read a high school textbook, can’t write a 3rd grade response to a question (being kind here to some high schoolers, and possibly unkind to most 3rd graders); and therefore also can’t write a proper response to a question on a standardized exam because they are unable to effectively read the question.

 Any child who does not have access to proper basic medical care, access to allergy and environmental poisoning evaluation, ophthalmological (eyes-glasses), otolaryngological (hearing), psychological and dental health care.

 Any child whose is not “emotionally and/or physically aggressive” (as defined in a: “I win and you lose” cultural society); whose inclines toward non-violence, who is quiet, quietly thoughtful and reflective, introverted, and reserved.

 Any child who is “disconnected” from other students (friends); the staff and faculty, or the many events, activities, projects and programs taking place in the school.

 Any child of who arrives to high school, having not been adequately academically prepared to do high school work by virtue of their previous K-8 learning experience.

 Any student who practices a religion or family life style (i.e. vegetarianism) that is different from the majority practices of the school staff and strident body.

 Any student who is a racial, ethnic or national minority in your school. (And it is not uncommon for “majority-minority” (Black) schools to ignore their Latino, Asian, Indian, Pakistani and White students and parents.

 Any LGBT child: aware, not aware, struggling, confused or depressed fearing, or receiving parental, family or religious affiliation rejection.

 Any Black, Latino, or any child of color who has been adequately academically prepared; and are on, or above grade level, or a product of a previous (K-8) gifted and talented program. (at risk of: “unlearning”, “stagnated” and “degenerative” academic learning)

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates “smartness” (intellectual curiosity, love of reading and books, interested in a non-stereotypical future exciting career aspiration (i.e. archeologist, botanist, entrepreneur, astrophysicist, ballerina etc.); a student who pursues the highest career aspirations possible.

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates an interest or ability in a “non-stereotypical” activities for example: fencing, gulf, swimming, lacrosse, painting-sculpture, gymnastics, tennis, opera, etc.

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates an interest and ability in anything STEM.

 Any girl student who either professes or demonstrates an interest and ability in anything STEM.

 Any Black or Latino student who either professes or demonstrates an interest in any non-stereotypical hobby, music preferences, dressing style, participates in activities like Boy or Girl scouting, strong and serious religious practitioners; any student who does not “keep it (stereotypically) real” in how they live their lives; in short students who could be subjected to being teased for: “not acting Black”.

 Any student whose gifts and talents have not been discovered (uncovered), and nurtured, encouraged and developed prior to arriving to your school.

 Any Black and Latino male student, regardless of their level of K-8 academic proficiency, intellectual interest, level of skills, talents and gifts.

 Any Black and Latino male student who dares to act, or be smart; and who dares to get high grades.

To be honest, I have never reviewed the student rosters of either Boys and Girls or Medgar Evers High Schools. But I am convinced that like most of our urban high schools a large number of the students who attend those two schools would fit in one or more of the “at risk” categories I have presented.
The larger the number of “at risk” students; the larger amount of experimentation is needed. Now I am not talking about the use of a recklessness and a cavalier gambling approach to achieving student and school success; after all “at risk” students already face an inordinate amount of “bad odds” scenarios that stand between them and academic success; rather I do believe that “new”, “alternative” and creative methods must be employed, if these students are to succeed.

Let’s be clear “experimentation” does not mean politically convenient, or intellectually lazy and professionally crazy. Doing something like placing an urban high school principal (anyone and anywhere) as the school based leader in charge of two schools (particularly two that are geographically far from each other) is the height of irresponsibility and callous cynicism. Clearly the people who made that decision in the NYCDOE either never lead an urban high school; or have, but cared little about both the educational well-being of those two schools and the communities (Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights Brooklyn, NY) that house them. How they were able to convince Black civic and political leaders to sign onto such an obviously ridiculous plan is a topic for another post. Just imagine the public, press, political and parent outcry at the suggestion of allowing the principals of either Bronx Science or Stuyvesant high schools, being allowed to split their school leadership time with a struggling high school; yes, all we could do is imagine because it ain’t happening!

The public school system in its “natural state” and political-cultural structure is designed to “lose” (fail) specific groups of students (i.e. the students at: Boys & Girls and Medgar Evers.) And since a large percentage of these students are on the before-mentioned “at risk” list; the fundamental problem is that these students are placed in a position of risk by the very system that should protect and educate them. The “risk” then for these students is for the school to follow the standard plan-of-action. “Status qua”, “not rocking the boat”, failing to: “shake things up”, is an educational death sentence for the students of both schools. But a much-needed radical approach to schooling must also be well thought out.

I am not sure what exactly a “master principal” is; but what I do know from my 11 years’ experience as an urban high school principal, that leadership effort took the attention and application of all of my physical and emotional energy. I arrived to the school in the morning when it was dark; and left the school in the evening when it was dark. I worked many Saturdays, during holiday-semester breaks, during the summer when I was technically “off”; and spent the bulk of my school day moving around the school, in and out of classrooms talking-listening to school family members, observing students-teachers, constantly evaluating learning and instruction, monitoring and managing the school environment; on evenings and weekends I often made home visits (from Park Slope to the Pink Houses!), or attended an event where a student was being honored or making a presentation. The only thing I hated was having to attend a meeting during the day, and thus be out of the school building!
Perhaps, I am not “master principal enough”; but I could not see myself spreading my efforts between two schools; the “at risk” factor was so great that even on those mornings when I woke up sick at 3:30 in the morning, I pushed-crawled myself out of the house because all I could think about was: “If I stay in this sick bed today, some student will be lost.”

Stop Playing…

The principalship if done correctly, should not provide a lot of “free time”. For every problem you solve, or plan you put into action; ten more are awaiting your attention; there is always more that you can do in the march toward creating a successful school. I always felt that I had more ideas and challenges to work on then I had time; and there was definitely more work then there was me! And so let us not mislead parents and communities as to the awesome requirements and responsibilities of the job.
Let us also not play games with other people’s children. Both schools need and require a full-time principal; but they also need a full-time innovative, revolutionary and bold strategic plan of action. How about expanding MEHS into a new building; and making B&GHS so attractive (as it once was) such that the building could be fully utilized. And this will work not because of “gimmicks”; but because someone, somewhere thinks that the students of both schools are worthy of serious thought and attention; and then we could see the power of a thoughtful and caring plan of experimentation-action that sought to save, and not sink student’s hopes and dreams.

Michael A. Johnson is a former Teacher, Principal and Superintendent.

What I learned from the: “Gorilla lives matter movement”

“Just like them teachers do fore they realize Mama like a stone on that spot and ain’t backin up”
-Gorilla, My Love— Toni Cade Bambara

“I am really an optimist; I am just trying to scare people in order to wake them up!”
-Karen Hunter Show Sirius XM; 5/31/16

“Black children don’t matter”

This is an issue that has haunted me for many of my years in public education. It is a persistent idea that has been ever-present, just above, below and inside of every situation I faced. And although I must admit, that even as many of the educators I deeply admire like: Ron Edmonds, Asa Hilliard, Barbara Sizemore and Adelaide Sanford (combined with and my own personal experiences), have been expressing some form of this concern for many years; it was only after my last public education assignment, that I have finally come to fully accept its “truism”. Now, this sounds strange even to my ears; and so I know it must sound strange to many of my friends and collogues, with whom I have discussed this problem so often, for so many years, such that people both in and outside of education often see me as a soldier in the battle against this debilitating concept. But I am starting to appreciate the major difference between knowing, and even saying, to fully understanding and effectively responding to the assault on the personhoods of children of color in this nation.

I am also embarrassed by the inspiration of the Gorilla lives matter movement (GLMM) in helping me to finally accept the reality of the result of Africans being forcible removed from their land; and then being systematically transformed out of their humanity, and transferred into a state of inhumanity, “things”. Thinkers and writers like: Victor Frankel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Michel Foucault and Primo Levi have all warned us that it is not normal to act normal, once one has been subjected to living in a prolonged and brutal dehumanizing state; it’s natural for even the most human of victims to begin to doubt their own humanity; and to doubt the humanity of those who look like them.

The public education system has been an efficient vehicle for that tragic transformation; being in fact the place and process, so eloquently stated (my summation) by Malcolm X: “Where we learned to love the people who hate us, and hate the people who love us!” I also feel ashamed of my late arrival to accepting the facts on the ground because as a first year principal in NYC, the supervising superintendent of high schools (approximately 500 high schools in the 1980’s-1990’s) stated once that I had the “best and fastest learning curve he had ever seen in a rookie principal!” Later a chancellor in the same school system, speaking to the press about my appointment to a very troubled school district stated that: “I was one of the gems of our school system!” And so why did that “learning curve gift and professional skill and knowledge” so fail me? Why could I not turn the corner and accept even the most painful and obvious truth?

And although all of the places I have worked have confirmed this terrible idea; and despite all of the written warnings of people like Paulo Freire, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon and Carter G. Woodson. And after sitting in a CCNY classroom under the tutelage of John Henrik Clarke (history); and Kenneth Clark (social psychology); I would need to credit the GLMM with the culminating, bringing it home lesson. And that lesson is: That in both in and outside of public education, ultimately, in this nation, Black children don’t matter!

And just to be clear about this “not mattering” thing, it is not limited to a particular race; part of the painful side of my learning process, and perhaps the source of my resisting its horrible conclusion; is that do to the very psychological damage inflicted by public education; Black people are taught that effective efficacious education itself is the enemy. Smartness is whiteness, STEM is our mortal enemy, academic achievement is an act of race betrayal, and that books are laced with poison; and finally: “we don’t really deserve wonderful educational things!” When the people you choose to serve are their own chief societal haters; then naturally they will hate you, and seek to destroy anything you try to create of value for them; because in the final analysis, they don’t truly believe that they deserve anything that is good and valuable.

How did we get here, well that is an entire course titled: “The theory, process and practices of human dehumanization” (Since they are so excited about making slave films, how about making that one!). The syllabus of that course must have a central learning objective that says: “You must not fight for the education of your children”; this objective insures generational destruction and degradation; or the feeding of children to the ever hungry prison and social “fixing” industry; and as summed up by the poet Langston Hughes; to produce a generation of dreamers whose dreams are deferred, year after year, after year, after….

The GLMM nailed it for me. And even after having lived through the pre-civil rights era; I had to admit that I was shocked at the low intellectual quality of the conversation around this incident. As I followed this story in the news and on social media, I kept asking myself: “What am I missing here?” Why is the outpouring of sorrow for the dead gorilla bigger than all of the daily senseless killings of the young disenfranchised Black people in our nation? Where is the concern for the many forms of a living deaths that they face: Poor and inadequate education that removes them from any chance of being a meaningful citizen-participant in a future America. The children whose brains and bodies are cynically poisoned by the water they drink, poison in and around the walls where they live, in the neighborhood streets where they play. Young people who are permanently damaged by an official national policy of not more, but “less”: joblessness, opportunity-less, homelessness and hopelessness.

I once wrote, with an angry tongue lodged firmly in clinched cheek. That Black young folks needed to be placed on the US Endangered Species List. Mabey then they could have a chance at surviving and thriving. And who knows, perhaps stimulate a national policy and movement that affirmed that their lives mattered to the well-being of our nation and species.

But what if we don’t wait to be loved. To have someone love your children more then you love them. Or, maybe we could just fall in love with ourselves, with our own humanity, our own potential, and take our educational destinies into our own hands.

Time to seriously look at the level of student protection, safety and academic success on college campuses.


For years I and other high school principals have, more or less successfully, warned parents against “disengaging” when their child reaches high school. I think this warning also holds true for college.
For also like many present and former high school principals, I have experienced several “bad incident”, “bad endings”, college stories. In some situations I had to either on the phone, or actually leave NYC to go and deal with a crisis a student found themselves in. And I may not have the data to prove it, but I truly believe that “bullying”, physical and sexual assaults on college campuses are terribly (for reason of institutional self-interest) underreported. Another important piece of “quiet” data; are the number of students who suffer non-violent trauma, confusion, disillusionment and/or depression, and just flunk out, and come back home. (When a NYC principal my contacts, and the fact that we insisted ever senior apply to the CUNY system have saved the day many times!)

During a crisis, too often the feedback college officials give parents (I have listened in my conference room to these conversations) is that the student is an adult. But that is not reassuring or comforting to a parent who has learned (often from the child) that they are arrested, in the hospital or involved with some kind of conflict with a roommate, professor, staff person or a fellow student. It is not uncommon for colleges to prefer to handle “problems” internally, for what might be some very good reasons (Good PR being the least of them!). But in many situations that results in an injured victim’s rights and care becoming a secondary concern. To their credit many colleges have taken a bold step in the right direction; by warning all students that: “if a crime is committed on campus, the local (not campus) police will be called”

At some point we need to face the issue of the lack of counseling and supervision for young people attending college away from home. This is one of those quiet national tragedies that slips pass the press, until there is a death. Although I believe that we have at least turned the corner on much of the extreme and dangerous “hazing” activities that take place on college campuses, we are not home-safe yet; annually stories still emerge, perhaps due to administration under-sight, or the existence of clandestine and unofficial hazing activities, committed by students who are, just hoping that nobody is seriously psychologically harmed or physically injured, so they won’t get caught.

I get that the colleges prefer to consider them adults, and I understand the “legal-statutory” standards involved here. But the truth is that nothing magical happens to one’s judgement after a high school graduation. These young people going off to college in a couple of months, are very often the same young people we had to counsel out of a bad decision a few months prior. High schools tend to remove parts of the psycho-social scaffolding as the students move from 9th to 12th grade; but we (and alert parents) always keep an eye (even if they don’t notice) on the students as they prove to us that they are making good and sound decisions. Further, young people are at very different places on the independence-maturity achievement scale.

On a college campus, death and serious injury is the extreme situations that can occur; but there are many small tragedies that never hit the news media. And if you are the parent of one of the few students in the nation who die every year at a college; national statistics don’t alleviate your grief and sorrow. One thing I have learned in education, numbers don’t matter when that one tragic number is your child.

Me & Navy

The interesting phenomena I noticed when I spent the day at the Naval Academy was that every student was “connected” to some team, project, activity, program that was connected to an adult. Every student was also connected to a team of other students, who were officially charged (and held responsible) for looking out for each other. The Naval cadets were also connected to families and religious institutions “off-campus”; it seem that to go “missing” or go into isolation was impossible.

Recently, I also spent a semester taking a class at an HBCU (Miles College-Alabama) and one of the things I admired about that institution was that the faculty (and the staff) took on a more parental-mentoring role as opposed to just separating themselves from students, and making themselves only available during scheduled “office hours”; and access by way of “official titles”. It seem that the faculty and staff took a personal interest in the personal well-being of individual students.

Me & Miles

I understand that most large universities can’t (for reasons of size, culture and tradition) duplicate the structures I saw at Miles College and the Naval Academy. But I do believe that they can do better. It’s not enough to see this as a “public relations” problem once something goes terribly wrong. There must be some positive proactive steps that can be taken, that allows students to experience “adulthood”, while at the same time feel protected and connected.

I think we can start by having a counselor (not academic advisor) officially assigned to a case load of students. This counselor of course can check on the student’s academic progress and challenges; but more importantly this counselor can consistently and continually check up on the student’s emotional state on a regular basis to determine if more extensive therapeutic or support services are needed. How is the student adjusting to being away from home? Away from family and friends? Who are their present (campus) friends and associations? What are they involved in outside of academics, i.e. clubs, teams, associations, etc.

We also need to look closely at the HBCU model. When institutions of higher learning take a social-political-cultural interest in the students well-being; and importantly a commitment to making sure that the student graduates; college campuses can become physically safer and emotionally healthier places! They must start looking beyond students as numbers and tuition payees.

That means moving past rhetoric (“Our students lives matter”), and more into operational-structural changes; again before, not after the tragedy! Colleges and universities must look closely at their mission statements to make sure they cover the psychological and physical wellbeing of all students (particularly women); and this can start by connecting every students to a “life-advisor”; who is concerned about them as a person, not a number.
Just having someone check on you, to ask from time to time: “How are you doing?” may not be seen as part of the college’s mission; but it could be seen as part of their humanity mission; after all you can be any age, and still appreciate someone checking up on you; even if you pretend it’s not that big a deal; it really always is! In the meantime parents, stay alert!

Why I don’t engage my Bernie Sanders friends anymore…

We have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do folks; let’s stay focused…


Early in the Democratic primary campaign I had some wonderful and enlightening conversations with my pro-Bernie friends. And I would even admit that they actually won me over with several of their arguments. Back then the conversations were focused on the virtues and integrity of the Sanders political positions. And I would be less than honest to say that I did indeed find their arguments concerning the way “big money” has polluted our political electoral environment appealing. I also connected with the Sanders denouncement of the ugly growing wealth and hope gap between the top money earners/owners, and the working and unemployed poor. Yes, and like them I was wary of the Democratic Party’s primary focus on accommodation and cautious incrementalism; as the GOP seems to have a serious action plan of obstruction, destroy and deny. We always ended these conversations with an obligatory agreement and pledge to support either of the two Democratic candidates, once the primary was concluded.

But something has changed to force me to no longer engage the “Bernites” either on social media or in person. And if I needed any further encouragement to take a step back, the recent altercation between actor/activist Wendell Pierce and some Bernie fans provided it. Now I don’t know what happen. And I don’t know if the Bernie fans in this situation were “progressives” or not; but anytime you call the police on a Black man in America, he better be a real criminal, because you are placing that man’s life in danger. But whoever is truly the aggressor here; I still say: “Come on, Bernie vs. Hillary; it can’t be that serious!”

We have students study history for a reason; in the past, things tend to go very bad when one leader takes on good angelic attributes, and the other leader, of course becomes the demonic bad angel. And unless (and we will see with Sanders) the “good angel” has the character of a Nelson Mandela; a movement for positive change, can turn quickly into a movement of nihilistic anger, hate and revenge.

Things started to turn bad when the Bernie folks went full in with the GOP talking points against Hillary Clinton. As an educator who has been molded by the philosophies of Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), I found this troubling. I have warned teachers and administrators for many years, that using the language of the oppressor, in any context, is dangerous business. When the news station (FOX) that is based on lies; calls Hillary a liar; I am sorry, but at the very least I am suspect, and not willing to use them as a source of information or inspiration. Further, it became less and less clear to me what the Sanders people end game was (is); as they went “bazooka” in the attempt to super demonize and damage Hillary.

It seemed, as the primary outcomes did not go their way, linguistic toxicity seeped in, the critiques became less about policy and more about personality; we were being led to believe that someone with the integrity of a John Lewis could not tell the difference between the Clintons, and the arch-segregationist of the Civil Rights era. All of those Black elected and civic leaders who I remember voting for and championing the “Clinton crime Bill”, suddenly went MIA; the campaign rhetoric started to sound bitter and dishonestly silly.

What finally shut me down was the real and implied dismissal and disrespect shown to Black voters; who according to the Bernites (again utilizing GOP talking points) were fooled, and foolish for voting for HRC; when in fact it was their candidates inability to make a link between: “breaking up the banks & walloping Wall Street”, and the dire and desperate economic state of Black America. Black voters have often suffered in history from supporting the abstract liberal-left adventurism of the entitled folks with jobs, safe water, and good schools for their children to attend.

In any event I am sticking with the original pledge of supporting the Democratic nominee, no matter who he, or she is; but I am not basing my hope for the deliverance of the disenfranchised on any of them. We need to both vote, and save ourselves (like the work done in New Orleans by Mr. Pierce), if we truly want to be saved!

I guess when it comes to utilizing the new social media I am clearly old-school.


I try to approach social media first with having the daily objective of encouraging and inspiring some person I may, or may not know. I also enjoy informing people of some good and vital learning enhancing information opportunity, i.e. a scholarship, internship, or an informal education experience (museum event). I further like to see the personal progress, successes, victories, achievements, accomplishments, new jobs, job promotions, graduations, and positive completions that people are able to realize; in particular I look forward to seeing the “good-news” of the many young people I have been blessed to work with in the past. And yes, I love, and never get tired of their children’s pictures! (My personal enjoyable and funny pay-back is when they sound like me when dealing with their teenage children!:-)

I (a passionate and consummate learner) also see social media as a tool, and opportunity for me to learn something new, something different, something for which I was unaware, some piece of knowledge or information I can use in one of my many “projects”, diverse study interest and numerous hobbies. I think that one way that I would define death (sorry biology teachers); is the personal end of learning. I utilize social media to fill my knowledge gaps; and in this practice I am very fortunate to be connected and “friends” with a large number of smart, intelligent and creative people, many of them former students or collogues.

The term “life-long-learner” is too often a throwaway line in my profession; but I really find joy in constantly expanding my knowledge-information resource bank across many different subject areas; particularly those topics outside of my intellectual comfort zone. If the end of learning is a kind of hell; then the reluctance and failure to get outside of ones learning comfort zone, must be the road to that hell. I love to read something that shakes-up my assumed knowing or a “sacred” and passionately held belief. The reason I think most people actually avoid pursuing life-long-learning; is that it can often put you in the very uncomfortable position, of having to continually think about your own style and substance of your thinking. (What we call in the field: metacognition)

That’s the good side…

But too often, I also find some very disturbing behaviors in the social media world. People will use the electronic distance, and the anonymous “handles” to say very ugly and hurtful things. To say things to and about people they would not say in a physical social-group setting, and definitely not to the person’s face. Now I am not talking about the critiques of public figures or officials; although even that can at times go a little too far. I believe that you can’t benefit from being a “public person”, and at the same time not expect to hear “negative feedback” from that same public. I know as a former superintendent of those dreaded monthly meetings where at 3 minutes a clip, you could receive the sometimes not so pleasant “advice” (often conflicting) from the public, as to how you are, or not doing your job properly. Public critiques are part of the “price of the ticket”; but we can very easily forget that these “public people” are also human people. And this would include the ever increasing “parent rants” about their child’s teacher on social media (It would be more productive to set up a meeting with the teacher and administrators at the school!) Public service should not translate into public abuse. On social media I think that too often even “humorous” comments at times rises to the level of abuse and disrespect for the humanity of a public-person; particularly when it includes the passing on of unconfirmed story lines; or drawing in their innocent family members into the conversation for reasons of inflicting unearned ridicule and rebuke.

My personal practice is to first read a comment or a posted article. And if it’s an “interesting” (defining interesting is “a whole nother” post!) article I may save it in one of my many reference folders; i.e. creative writing, early childhood education, Art, history, school improvement, “bucket list stuff”, school leadership, etc. Or sometimes I will read an article or post, and just take “interesting” sections (quotes, books, references) put them in a file and revisit them later for an article, or to shed light on something else I am reading. This style of reading-studying-note taking, the comparing and contrasting of different articles, the process of dissecting, deconstructing and analyzing is a result of several autobiographical experiences:

(1) My having spent so much of my “latch-key” childhood life in the unofficial after-school care of the Brooklyn Public Library. There I learned that searching (researching) for knowledge and fun was, well fun! I learn to love the pursuit of what appears to others to be disassociated, disconnected and obscure topics of interest; for no other reason except that they are in the world to be known. Since the 50’s (reading the entire Sherlock Holmes series) I interpreted, “smartness” as to mean that you were conversant and a student of knowledge across multiple subject areas. Later in undergraduate school one of my heroes was my social psychology professor Dr. Kenneth Clark, who could link and move effortlessly between the disciplines of history, anthropology, philosophy and political science, etc. later I would feel the same way about people like W.E.B. Du Bois and Michel Foucault.

(2) I had great k-12 teachers, and in particular a 12th grade English teacher who threatened us kids with torture on “the rack” if anyone ruined her perfect pass rate on the NYS English Regent’s exam. The courts may have taken religion out of public schools; but not out of her class; we were warned: “The Lord himself will need to come to the rescue of anyone who fails that Regents exam!” Some of us may have trusted in the Lord; however in this case, we preferred not to use that option. But it was not only her fierce admonitions; these words were matched with her commitment, efficacy, competence, and the ever present, and ever ready to be used red pen; for which no essay, book report or composition could escape without a red corrective comment (how on earth did she find all of those small mistakes?). I think somewhere in the middle of the semester we all gave up on: “no red marks”; and redefined victory as a small amount of red marks. I know that in our modern pedagogical era the “red pen” has been ruled verboten, but back in the 60’s they were more concerned about our academic achievement and success, then our “hurt” feelings. In any event no one from my class ended up on the “rack.”

Finally (3) I had a gem of a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College doctoral program for my research methodology class, the late Dr. Linda Powell. She actually taught me “to read” in a new and different way, such that even now as I read any article or paper I can almost instinctively detect the slightest bias, faulty premise, a flaw in logic, or inadequate-incorrect research methods; and any disconnect between the title, hypothesis, the body of the work and the conclusion. And so I bring all of this to my social media readings.

And is this wrong?

I say this because I often read the “comments” and responses that others post in response to postings (including mine); and I am left to wonder if the responding individual even took the time to read the post or the article in question. I have visions of that dreaded 60’s “red pen” hovering above my head, as I read some of these comments. “Did they read the same article I read?” Sometimes I have even gone back to re-read the article (including some I have posted) assuming that: “maybe I read it wrong!” Nope, (that’s time I will never get back!) I read it right. It seems that the “off-topic” respondent wanted to make a point, and to hell with the actual point of the post or article! There is a lot of: “putting people in their place”, or “straightening people out” on social media, and less learning from others. But I think many of these incorrect corrections are really social media putdowns masquerading as the free flow of differing ideas. And not to get lost in all of these efforts; I have also seen some very enlightening (respectful) and educational debates and dialogues on social media; but I think the anonymous nature of the medium encourages too much of the “put down” stuff.

Perhaps this is a place where K-12 educators can be helpful (where are my curriculum and instruction majors!); after all I don’t think that social media is going away anytime soon. Mabey we should put this media into the (ELA?) curriculum. Help students to see it not only in the context of communication, but also as an educational learning tool with standards and accompanying rubrics to define and explain those standards. The technical aspects of social media (how does snapchat do what they do, technically?) A business-entrepreneurial use of the medium. And what about an “anti-bullying”, respect, tolerance, conversational etiquette component in the curriculum. And finally some “Too Much Information Sharing” standards; there are somethings that the public, family, friends, co-workers; future: voters, constituents, college selection committees, students, customers, employers or employees, (present or future love interest!); don’t need to know about you! I can’t speak for my other collogue-friends, but I did not plan to be a principal in high school or college (and had no idea what a school superintendent was or did)

Clearly, I don’t fit into the: say “whatever” (comes to mind) age…

Thinking of the term “old-school”; I have now accepted that the term defines me in both ways. For I can’t count the number of times in the past that I have had students in my office as a principal where I suggested to them that: “Just because an idea, enters your head, it does not always mean that you are required to verbally share it with the teacher or class.” Or: “Imagine if you did not allow that phrase to leak from your head to your mouth; instead of sitting here now with me, the teacher could be thinking, (not having any proof to the contrary), that you have a great deal of sense!” Mabey calmer and more thoughtful “heads” will eventually come to be the best and common practices we see on electronic social media. I sure hope so!

Holding us in, holding us close, holding us up, and holding us to our calling…


Holding us in, holding us close, holding us up, and holding us to our calling…

    “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

    We hold these memories to a sacred conclusion,
    these are those, the sad society of unnested orphans,
    recipients of the ever forgiving hearts,
    the ever giving milk of kindness;
    our mothers are in us as we were in them,
    swimming inside of our thoughts, singing in our words:

    (“did I just sound like her?”…“say something she would say?”)

    And the constant and often inconvenient voice:

    “If I did, said that, what would Pauline Johnson say?”

    The motherless fellowship, we always feel alone now, today and most days;
    sailing on a rudderless ship, we just try to get through the day,
    abandoned by laughter and exiled to our quiet remembrances,
    we can at least smile as the end products of fierce prayers and tears,
    and for those things that can never be lost, or taken away;
    the things wrapped in and around DNA, the nuanced little habits;
    time leads our learning to love a calling given, like our names at sea,
    I fell in line to my maternal labeling:

    Michael, the warrior Arch Angel destined to directly confront satan,
    Anthony, the wilderness wanderer, compassionate, alone and sensitive saint,
    built to enable and inspire others to their calling with God.
    Why these two opposites, I would ask her now,
    why the terrible burden of wanting to both fight and pray, destroy and heal?

    (“I will always be there with you, I am praying for you now, and for when I am gone”)

    And so I am always caught before I fall,
    warned out of my own fondness for forgetting the reason and why,
    emissaries sent and signs signaling, push backs against occasional regret and sorrow;
    And even now I still seem to recall everything:

    words soaked in wisdom and warnings of pending winters,
    looks that could instantly stop any pre-inappropriate behavior,
    smiles soaked in the sacred secrets of a promised offering,
    the warmness of touch pushing the scrapes and bruises away;
    words, looks, smiles and the warmness of touch,
    was essential for a black boy to survive the brooklyn streets,
    to survive the world’s cruel intentions…

    In many ways I was a dedication to disappointment,
    an unreturnable gift;
    (“I understand you care about your people, but they…”)
    But she always cared,
    for my hope was not to disappoint,
    to not waste great efforts born of solemn, bold and silent sacrifices.

    I am still swimming in a maternal sea of hope,
    connected and nourished in spite of all the discord in my life,
    by the prayers of a faithful & brave woman,
    who without future evidence, and with no proof of the promise,
    dedicated her child to the mysterious call of God.
    What was she thinking?
    She was not, she was praying.

    -MAJ/Mother’s Day/2016

School: A place you go to learn to live, not to die… Part 2.

We don’t serve the families of our imagination, or even the “perfect” families that nurtured us, rather we serve the families who send us their children everyday…


A philosophical cultural narrative of weakness rules the thinking of too many educators. It is the “If only…” factor. It asserts that we could successfully educate children: “If only parents taught them a list of prerequisite skills prior to their arriving to our schools!” “If only parents knew how to assist their children with homework and home study techniques!” “If only parents exposed their children to the many informal educational activities and institutional resources that exist outside of school!” “If only parents would insure that their children take school and learning seriously!” “If only parents taught their children to behave properly!” If only…

For sure our work would be much easier if parents were able and willing to engage and enforce the before mentioned best parental practices. And yet sadly, this faulty belief is sacredly held by many who have done the required educational readings in developmental psychology; and therefore should be fully aware that the adolescent stage is the internal psychological (and physiological) signal to the child to begin the natural and necessary: “resistance to parental control over my life” period. But if our work is truly a vocation, then we must serve people where they are, not where we wish they were, or where our work would be made easier; for as I read somewhere that:

“…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

The truth is that we don’t serve the “model” families of our imagination, or even the imagined “perfect” families that raised us; rather we serve the naturally imperfect families who send us their children every day, seeking what most parents seek for their children, a better life; and definitely they are not sent to school to lose their lives…

And so, in order to have a safe learning environment: The principal must be strategically proactive, preventative and investigative in the approach to student safety. A safe learning environment is your first priority. I don’t want to give any students all of the secrets of the Principal craft; but here are a few small things to get things started, that can make a large impactful difference:

1. Personally meet, greet and welcome students at the door each morning; with one of the objectives being to read “body language”. Many students are forced to travel from and through very stressful situations at home, or on the way to school. If required, initiate some preventive-counseling if the student arrives with the signs of “going to have a very difficult day”. Know what challenges your students are facing outside of school. Be a “nosey”, “inquisitive”, “pushy”, “in the business” type of building administrator— “intelligence gathering” from multiple sources is critical; the school family members must have access to you, in order to communicate with you. The age of the “ivory tower” principal (my 60’s high school days when we never saw the guy!) is over. The people who accuse you of “doing too much”; don’t share your responsibility for keeping your students and staff safe, and based on their comment, neither do they know how. There is a conspiracy to keep you in your office; fight it! Get out of your office and move around the school–Including at the start of school, lunch periods, and at the end of the school day! You especially need a relationship with students that would allow them to feel safe and comfortable to “put you on” to a present or possible conflict, particularly, in its early stages. As a superintendent I used, (as was the case with my Brooklyn H.S. superintendent with me) the “preventing an incident” statistic as an important measurement for determining effective school leadership. You need a plan in place to counteract various possible scenarios; for example: Alternate (change from time to time), your walking habits and the security petrol plan to make them less predictable. You need a safe integration and oversight plan for a “new” student transferring into the school in the middle of the year; a standard cause of conflict in H.S., because students have already started to “group-up”. Provide them with an initial good group of (your) selected friends. Don’t believe everything you hear about teenagers; I have always found that young people are honored, and take this assignment seriously, and are also flattered that the principal would ask for their help (which is how you should begin the request: “_________, I need your help”)

2. A clear and widely understood discipline code: A discipline plan must be proportional to the violation, equitable, just; and it must have consistency and act with predictable consequences. And the ultimate learning objective of the discipline program is not punitive, it is to be instructive. You are not solely in the discipline business; you are in the teaching of appropriate, positive and productive behavior business.

3. A student involved conflict resolution program, where the reward-weight is placed on seeking a resolution to a student to student conflict. The plan can’t just be based on prohibitions and penalties (as severe as they must be); students need positive incentives not to fight.

4. Good and rigorous instructional-learning practices invite good behavioral practices. A good and strong instructional plan/program will also cut down on the amount of time, for a large portions of the school time, when a student is out of class unsupervised. A “principal for a day” corporate executive once joked to me: “My goodness, these kids don’t ever go to the bathroom during classes!” (“Nope, they are high school students, they can be encouraged to manage that biological process efficiently!”)

5. Offer a rich survey of student clubs, activities and teams that cover a wide spectrum of student interest, gifts and talents. In this way you are connecting large numbers of students to an adult in the building, and to each other. The principal must enroll every adult in the building (including school aides, custodians, cafeteria staff, etc.) in the securing the school mission!

6. I don’t know what this particular fight was about; but my experience has been that girls will often fight over some type of real or imagined “boy issue”; the boy involved usually is neither sympathetic nor interested in the conflict (“Mr. Johnson, I did not tell them to fight, can I go back to class?”… No, you can’t!); even if he has purposely caused it. The key factor is that the adults in the building must take these kind of conflicts seriously; you can’t project your adult ideas onto the situation, and just dismiss it as: “silly”, “childish” or “puppy love”.

7. Once you have the two antagonist in your office (remember: the principal’s office is a classroom); you must spend all the time necessary to truly end the conflict. Shake hands and saying: “I’m sorry”, is not necessarily a teenager’s concept of “it’s over” (there’s that knowledge of developmental psychology thing again!). Ending a conflict between teenagers takes time and work, you must be willing to put in both. You must also be willing to do the necessary follow-up and “check-up” on the status of the situation. You must balance punishment with counseling (This is a palace where me and my late-great guidance counselor Mrs. Cammarata played our best good guy/bad guy routine; she would say: “You two better work with me, because if it’s all Mr. Johnson’s way, I can’t save you from what terrible and harsh ending that will befall you”

8. Have a friends and audience on notice plan (bring the key “potential candidates of instigation”, the “Paul Revere types”, into your office to receive their warning): Anybody “instigating” or “hyping up” the situation, verbally, online, written; engaging in rumor mongering: that is starting, carrying or delivering of same rumor or threat; you have been dully warned! Any incitement in the format of a rap, poem, song, or drawing; the facilitation of the conflict through “venue selection”, “audience informing”, or even offering to “hold a coat”; will lead to serious and very painful consequences. Any type of first, second or third hand involvement in promoting a conflict; if your name comes up in any way as encouraging the conflict, and it results in a fight; you get the same penalty as the combatants. Anybody watching (cheering or encouraging) will face sanctions. Don’t waste your (comments) time educators, I know none of this is “officially” legal; and since we are on the topic of not legal; yes I suspended two students for fighting on the weekend (nobody tried that move again!) And at another school I blocked another fight when I turned up at the “fight site” early, having been tipped off by students; and yes the potential combatants paid dearly for ruining my Saturday morning!

9. Engage and enroll students into the mission of the school; ultimately you will need them to manage their own behavior, as well as the behavior of their peers. The students need a political and moral philosophy that leads them away from physical conflict. Make “snitching” to prevent violence in the school a virtue (by changing the word and the concept); protect the identities, honor and reward those who inform you of threats to their own, or the school family’s safety (“But, how did you know Mr. Johnson?… “Never mind how I found out; now let’s talk about this “beef” between you and ____________!”) Make peace a practiced cultural imperative for the entire school family. The concept of: “why we are here”; and why we need each other to survive and succeed!

10. Finally, the principal must be able to take “the heat”. You could be designated as “too strict” by a parent; that is, until that parent’s child is a victim of violence, and then you are “not strict enough”! And so you might as well do what you need to do in the beginning, to make the school safe! The principal must also be prepared to take every push-back and criticism that the “liberal-do-gooder” community will throw at you; because trust me, none of them will be standing with you, when you lose your job for leading an “out-of-control” and/or dangerous school. And they will also be absent in the worst moment of the profession; and that is when you are forced to inform a parent that the child they sent to you alive and well that morning, is in the hospital, or worse is now dead.

In my 11 years as a principal I have experienced the full spectrum of “parenting skills”; some great, some not so great. I have worked with students from all types of living conditions; good housing, bad housing, group home housing, to no housing. One parent, two parents, no parents, grandparents, deployed parents, foster parents, parents living in another country, one parent in prison, or both parents in prison. In any event, I saw my job as principal was to serve as a counteracting force to what the external society wanted to bring into the school; that meant I had to think and plan on how to keep children and staff safe. I did this because as a high school principal I knew that re-raising teenagers was an impossibility; and asking only for perfectly raised children was a wasteful act of fantasy. The school environmental culture must offer an alternative peaceful and predictable reality; that would allow children a break from (read: a rest away from) the world.

An effective school culture of peace places the emphasis on prevention, “an early warning system”, clear and precise behavioral standards, the conditions and consequences that will occur for not meeting those standards; and the ultimate goals of: peaceful resolutions, having a peaceful environment, and the teaching of appropriate and productive human social interactions. Any principal with the title can suspend students after a fight, or after a staff person, or another student is seriously injured.
However, the principal who is effective, seeks to be a master incident preventer! And that requires thoughtful strategic planning skills. Build a school safety culture that responds to the present reality that exist both internal and external to your school. It must also be a safety cultural that effectively balances justice with compassion; punishment with rehabilitative-counseling-restoration; and the protection of individual student rights, along with the right of the majority of the school family to work and learn in peace.

Michael A. Johnson is a former school teacher, principal and superintendent.