A School Leadership (staff & students) Teachable Moment: The Dave Chappelle theater renaming ceremony debacle –There’s a strong possibility that many things went wrong on multiple levels.

As a superintendent, I’ve told principals in an after-crisis review session: “Well, we might as well put this painful situation to some good use by turning it into a reflective leadership learnable moment!”

“Comedian Dave Chappelle unexpectedly announced Monday that a student theater at his alma mater, Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, will not bear his name… in a surprise move, Chappelle, who attended the dedication ceremony, declined the honor amid controversy over his Netflix special last year that many blasted as transphobic. Ellington students had also raised concerns…”—Washington Post

It is that rare (as in a live woolly mammoth sighting rare) decision that a principal will make where all the internal and external school family stakeholders are happy. This is why a principal should probably avoid making a decision that will result in everybody (for some reason or another) being unhappy.

So now, on this Dave Chappelle issue, I can wear multiple perspective hats (1) Principal, (2) Superintendent, and (3) A recipient of being honored by having a library (now state-of-the-art media center) in the school where I was a principal named after me.

Most public school districts I am aware of have a standard prohibition against naming a school or any part of a school after a living person for many good reasons, all predating and having nothing to do with Mr. Chappelle. One good reason is that the person is still alive! This means that by being a living person, there is always the possibility that they could say or do something that would bring shame or dishonor to the institution, a lesson you don’t want children to learn and endure. This is why I was so honored (noticing that I was still alive) to have a section of my former NYC school named after me; which meant the present principal, superintendent, the school district’s legal department, and the Chancellor all felt confident that I would not “lose it” (and do something crazy like storm the US capital to overturn a presidential election…) before I finally bow out of this world, thus forcing them to go through the ugly process of rescinding the honor bestowed upon me, and the even uglier painful process of having to explain their actions to my family, the public, press, staff, and students. And we could double down on their trust-in-me factor since the primary funding ($1-million) source for the new Media Center was the then Brooklyn borough president, who had just won the primary, and soon-to-be mayor Eric Adams.

But with all that, my “renaming ceremony” took more than two years before it was publicly mentioned. This amount of time was needed even with me being a person who is well-known in the NYC/NYS public education community. I joked with a friend that at this pace (I was 70 at the time), I could be dead soon, thus making the investigation phase move much faster!

Although I was the subject of the process, as a former NYC principal and superintendent, I know how much preempting “Due Diligence” investigative work is performed when a prohibition-waving decision of this magnitude is made; any mistakes and political “heads could roll”! This “intense vetting” process is especially important in a hyper news media place like NYC (I’m not kidding––when the NYC Mayor eats at a restaurant, reporters actually report on his menu choices!) or in the case of a celebrity like a Mr. Chappelle, in a “hot” news media place like Washington DC.

After the rigorous research and internal discussions period have concluded, the next step is to ask the honoree privately and informally if they would be opposed to this honor being bestowed upon them and to answer any questions they might have. This is also when the potential honoree is politely invited to voluntarily offer any possible problematic information for discussion. You then wait (still no public announcement) for a while to allow both the honoree and the school system to think through and about this decision. During or at the end of this period (months), either party can back out without any public embarrassment or negative conflictual situation.

I don’t know the precise details of the Dave Chappelle –Duke Ellington H.S. (DEHS) situation, so I am not blaming any one person, but several issues/questions come to my mind (now wearing my superintendent’s hat) when I think about the possible contributing causes of the crisis. I also think back as a superintendent to those many situations when I had to prevent (fortunately, without any news coverage) a principal from entering into or had to pull a principal’s behind out of the fiery pit of serious self-destructive trouble!

Facing this particular Chappelle renaming issue, my first question to the principal would be the “still alive” question and our having a conversation (before Mr. Chappelle is contacted) about why (or why not) in this case, we should wave the prohibited naming regulation for a living person; and specifically, the why should we wave it for this living person. And further, honestly exploring one of my favorite leadership questions: “What could possibly go wrong?”

So many people think of Chancellors and Superintendents primarily as ‘pedagogical agents.’ And yet, their educational work efforts can be highly affected by and highly susceptible to the results of ‘political problems or issues.’ So a principal must always be alert and prepared to protect their supervisor from unnecessary, politically harmful situations.

But back to my superintendent’s hat discussion with the principal. We would need to have a focused conversation on Mr. Chappelle’s particular art form –comedy. The comedic arts and tradition specialize (and for good enlightenment and entertainment reasons) in pushing audiences to what could be “uncomfortable places.” What I would see as simply an insightful and thought-provoking joke by a comedian (or an actor in a comedic role or scene), another person could take as a serious offense. Further, in our present era of ultra-political-correctness, it is challenging, even outside of stand-up-comedy, to get through an ordinary non-controversial public speech and not “offend” somebody in some way (“oh wait, she said mankind instead of humankind!”).

But professional comedians, not necessarily seeking to offend, will purposely use controversial language to push the audience members ‘intellectual buttons’ to get them to think about something they would rather not or are afraid to think about or speak out loud. In many ways, comedians speak for (and often take the heat for) our unexpressed inner questions, ideas, thoughts, and, to be honest, our unvoiced and silenced sense of humor.

Let’s face it, as tragically harmful a Donald Trump or Herschel Walker storyline, there is a comical aspect to their behaviors! And perhaps, it is that funny buffoonery exhibition of their lives that keeps many of us from becoming totally cynical and/or depressed–but clearly, many others in our nation love and adore these two individuals! When Dave Chappelle said in one of his shows that “Black people supported Jussie Smollett with our silence,” many Black folks, I’m sure, got the joke’s cultural, historical, and inside political brilliance–but others (including, I suspect, some Black folks) may have been offended by it. My point is that one person’s acceptable joke could be another person’s unacceptable offense, so where does that leave us? (hopefully not in no jokes about the ‘great leader’ North Korea land!)

And so my superintendent’s question to the principal: “After you have reviewed hours of Mr. Chappelle’s work, do you believe your staff, parents, external supporters, and students will be overwhelmingly able to endorse and support this effort?” And, (a front-end process) “Have you discussed this with your school leadership team and key parents, faculty and staff members?” (And principals, I do hope you know who those key ‘sounding-board’ parents, faculty and staff members are in your school building! In high schools this can include feed-back from some mature and thoughtful, or highly/directly affected, and ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ student leaders.)

I have (full disclosure) visited this great school (DEHS) in question on several occasions and knew a little bit about its culture. Even from my outsider’s view, I could imagine some members of that extended school stakeholding family would have serious problems with some of Mr. Chappelle’s jokes.
And because the physical and emotional safety of children must be a priority in public education, we should always error on the side compassionate protection. Perhaps, a better route would have been to honor Mr. Chappelle with a prestigious alumni scholarship named after him, as opposed to a space students would have to enter, study and perform in. College scholarships are consistently named after not-so-perfect and sometimes controversial people (e.g., people), and students can choose to apply for them or not.

Finally, I think that the entire school, particularly a performing arts high school, should turn this unfortunate event into a teachable, learnable, critical analysis (there, you see, some people will be offended by my use of a “critical analytical approach” to study) moment. The students are going to engage in many (on and off campus) discussions about the incident; and so, why not have those discussions be staff-led, positive and productive? Some topics for discussion (consistent with the school’s mission) could be:

“When does speech become violence?”

“What does it mean to feel safe and humanized in a space?”

“What is the comedic art form and tradition?”

“What is artistic freedom?”

“What is acting or performing? Can we separate a ‘performance personality’ and dramatically professed beliefs from the performer’s real (life) personality and beliefs?” –Is Denzel Washington a heroic (Malcolm X) Black leader or a (Training Day) brutal and corrupt cop? Or, maybe he’s just Denzel Washington playing a role!

“What people, and how many of them must be offended by an art presentation for it to be banned or canceled?”

“Who has the political power (in any society) to determine acceptable/appropriate or unacceptable/inappropriate art expressions?” –or in this case, what’s funny and not funny?

And finally:

“Why and would the students want to attend a post-high school performing arts training institution with a complicatedly ‘bad’ historical connection (e.g., as in Yale and its benefiting connection to American slavery), accept a fellowship or scholarship program named after a horrible person (e.g., a Rhodes Scholarship named for a racist mass-murdering imperialist), or perform at a venue (The Jefferson Performing Arts Center; named after a rapist and unrepentant enslaver of human beings!)…
(Among the ethical and credibility problems with the entire “cancellation” movement/process are the numerous unspoken and hypocritical economic-financial, opportunistic, racial, gender, and power-differential factors involved.)

These are difficult but necessary questions that must be addressed by all young people, but especially by the Duke Ellington High School students, many of whom could be entering the world of further art study and/or professional performance after graduation. Therefore, we high school educators must help students to think strategically (helping guide them to avoid as much societal and self-harm as possible) about successfully navigating through a world full of complicated contradictions and imperfect options; a place where things will rarely (if ever) be an ideal choice between a perfect good and a perfect evil.

And suppose “offensive” in the eyes of anyone who feels offended becomes the standard evaluative rule in comedy. In that case, we should just be honest as a society and ban all comedy. For why should one person’s self-interpreted offense be less pertinent and uncomfortable than another person’s self-interpreted offense?

Are we as a nation taking ourselves too seriously? I have of late discovered and enjoy immensely with my other senior citizen friends the joy of laughing at our present and younger (so solemn and serious) selves!

But seriously, as an African-American man, I would very much like to ban what I consider to be some of the most degrading and insulting modern-minstrel-shows on television (I’ll admit, they are often enjoyed by many Black Americans). Then there are those newspaper, TV news, and magazine articles that daily assault and seek to ignore and diminish my humanity and personhood. Still, I’m not going down that canceling-censoring path because there are probably many people in this nation who are offended by many of the artistic, creative and informational sources and performance things I cherish and enjoy, so where would that lead us?
If everyone decides to slay everyone else’s sacred beliefs and then impose their own sacred beliefs on everybody else, we will then be left to live in a world where the belief system that ultimately triumphs will do so through the cynically cruel mechanisms of either political (SCOTUS) and/or physical (Taliban) violence.

NYC Mayor Adam’s Five Borough Specialized High School (SHS) Expansion Plan could be an educational game-changer and save a lot of children.

I do hope that one of those schools will be a STEM-Applied Computer Science CTE SHS!(1)

For many of us veteran Title-1 (poor) schools urban (and rural) professional educators, the questions have never been about our student’s intellectual abilities, their passionate aspirations, or the hopes and dreams of their parents and communities. Instead, it has always been about expanding and extending the empowering exposure of high-quality teaching-learning experiences, “good atmospheric” and enriched resources conditions to larger cohorts of very capable students. This means those students have the opportunity to enter a clean, calm, and productive school environment; having access to adequate health, social-emotional, and counseling services; their teachers have the appropriate equipment, learning-support resources, and supplies, and the school follows a curricular approach that is rich in rigor, and strategically undergirded and guided by a team of skilled efficacious adults, inspired by a love of unconditional high expectations.

Young people have the amazing ability to rise and meet the academic challenges presented to them, often even shocking themselves when they perform at an exceedingly high level. But this can only happen if they are given a chance and learning conditions that will allow them to demonstrate the full range of their innate repertoire of skills, gifts, talents, and one or more expressions of the “multiple intelligences” (e.g., logical-mathematical, musical, physical, interpersonal, creativity, etc.) they possess.
This is why as a former NYC superintendent (CSD29Q), I “broke” the rules and decided on my own to dramatically expand the district’s limited Gifted & Talented (G&T) classroom “allocations,” including adding some of our “underperforming schools” to the list! And, of course, some of the folks who were centrally “in charge” of G&T programs were very upset with me (“turf-protectionism” is a big deal in school-district bureaucracies and can often take precedence over students’ needs); however, the then NYC Chancellor (Harold Levy) wonderfully supported my decision. That decision “paid” for itself by raising the standardized exams proficiency levels of all students, at all proficiency-performance levels, in every newly minted G&T school! You see, (something else the present mayor got right) the mere presence of elementary and middle school G&T classes (like high school I.B., A.P., exciting advanced electives, academic teams, and programs) will cause an entire school to “think-of-itself” and be seen by prospective parents more differently and positively! This is why as a CSD29Q superintendent, I saw a dramatic drop in parent requests for transfers or the parent’s use of “unofficial transfer” methods when I placed a G&T program along with an exciting applied STEM lab in a so-called “underperforming” school building.

But it should also be understood that the unfortunate and imprecise term “underperforming school” can be misleading since in every school, regardless of a school’s lackluster academic performance data, you should know that there are cohorts of students in that school building who are, in fact, performing well and in some cases “overperforming” and so, what are we to do with those children? (There are a lot of students who are actually “underperforming” in so-called “good” or “high-performing” schools, but that’s a topic for another day).

We should stop defining and dismissing students’ naturally high and perhaps undiscovered capabilities based on the neighborhoods where they live, their family’s income, their racial or ethnic identity, their parent’s level of education, or mastery of the english language.
I don’t believe that whoever is “in transcendent charge” of distributing talents to newborns is using any of the abovementioned socio-economic criteria (all out of the child’s control) as a determining factor of who does or does not get a talented gift(s) at birth. And suppose you don’t believe that all children are provided at birth with a special and unique contribution to the world. In that case, I don’t know what to tell you, except that I just hope you are not working or plan to work in the education field!

The mayor has also suggested that the new Specialized High Schools (SHS) admissions process will utilize a more comprehensive inclusionary focused approach rather than an exclusionary focused admissions process. This could mean assessing the multiple modalities (e.g., visual, verbal, touch, hearing, etc.) by which children learn and express that learning. This opens the SHS admissions opportunity door to a much wider pool of students than is allowed with the present SHSAT(2) process; this will further provide NYCDOE educators with a tool to ‘discover’ those young people who are not great at or who are ‘naturally nervous’ test-takers. These “challenged-test-takers” under new and improved screening procedures would be able to demonstrate their high levels of skills and knowledge outside of a “high stakes,” win/lose, one-day, one-chance exam. But that won’t stop those critics who are opposed to any form of standards of assessment from engaging in soapbox sophistry; that is, of course, unless they are talking about the standardized assessments that have enriched their own (or their children’s) personal and professional lives like the: SHSAT, NYS Regents Exams, Advance Placement Exams, SAT, ACT, GRE, PRAXIS, LSAT, MCAT, etc.

Create more successful outcomes on the back-end by creating more opportunities on the front-end.

I believe this expansion of SHS sites in NYC could save a lot of young folks if organized in a strategically smart way. These students will gain access to a high school experience that will push them to their best academically performing selves and raise their competitive academic capacities. Too often, many on or above grade and performance level young people in Title-1 high schools are fighting on two learning-fronts; first, trying to master the academic material and secondly, trying to navigate the very common learning distractions occurring in their schools and classrooms; this is too much to ask of an adolescent.

We need to absolutely improve the quality of education in all high schools in the city and, at the same time, allow academically advanced (especially those who are traditionally disregarded) students to demonstrate and perform in a high-expectations, peer-challenged, less stressful, and “safe-to-be-smart” learning environment. This work must be done as public school systems simultaneously improve (equalize) the quality (and quantity of that quality) of pre-high school learning in all elementary and middle schools. A student’s high school “opportunity-options” (e.g., advance, elective, AP courses, etc.) are ultimately determined and/or significantly influenced in their PreK-8 learning years, thus limiting or expanding their post-high school range of possible choices. Transitioning to a public high school should not be a quality learning survival-obstacle course, especially for children forced to cross an inferior pre-high school learning-less minefield.

(My warning to Eric Adams) The political pushback on this SHS initiative could get ugly and loud.

One of the argumentative attacks will be (and this is solely applied to high performing Black and Latino students): “If you don’t immediately ‘fix’ the entire system (or school), then no (Black & Latino) students should experience an educational program that meets their learning proficiency level needs.” And so, welcome to the club Mr. Mayor, for I have been on the receiving end of this kind of racially selective call for group mediocrity and collective underachievement thinking for many years; this line unfairly paints a lot of children in public education as “deficient learners” when they are not; it just could be that they, unfortunately, live in the “wrong” low-expectations/low-quality learning zip code.

One of the main reasons we in public education don’t do a better job with all children, including those struggling academically, is that we have not even figured out systemically how to do a good job with Black and Latino children who are on or above grade and performance levels; especially our Black and Latino boys who are members of that “on and above” group.
I challenge any leader or public education stakeholder to speak (as I have) at a state youth correctional facility; you will probably share the same alarming and sad thoughts I had as I drove home on that day:
My goodness, those are smart and talented kids; how on earth did we fail them so badly!
Unfortunately, specific segments of the US population send large numbers of their very capable, creative, inventive, and intellectually talented kids into the prison system; this is where they do successfully learn to apply their talents in the most personally destructive and societally harmful ways possible. We need to offer these young people (and ourselves) a more promising and positively productive future.

Mr. mayor, there will be push-back-hell to pay! (or maybe a ‘critical-mass’ of NYC parents will rise up and make their hopes and dreams for their children known!)

Interestingly, I’ve found, as an educator doing this: “equality of quality learning” work over the years, that the vast majority of these politically correct “push-backers” (yes, it purposely rhymes with bushwhackers) on anything relating to Black and Latino students receiving any type of “academically advanced” learning will be people who either themselves and/or their children enjoyed, or are enjoying some kind of public or private “specialized enriching educational exposure” — It’s a cynical attitude of: “what’s good for thee (the masses) is not good for me (the entitled ‘leader’ of the masses)!
But I say push forward Mr. Mayor, because, if this works, many NYC children will win, meaning they will at least have a better chance at having a decent and rewarding post-high school life. And ultimately, regardless of the cost, we must always be in the saving the children “business” and not in the business of supporting adults who want to create hypocritical PC hashtags or who want to pontificate on news and social media platforms, where they engage in meaningless and simplistic soliloquies that have nothing to do with real students in real public schools.
The public high school experience is our last chance in the PreK-12 system to make a significant and lasting difference in a young person’s life; let’s take every opportunity to make that difference powerfully impactful!

(1) See: REPORT TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership; Chapter 16 on establishing: “An Effective Career Technical Education (CTE) Program”; and Chap. 18 on; “Building the model schoolwide technology program and department”… https://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/about-the-report-to-the-principals-office-book/

(2) SHSAT: Specialized High School Aptitude Test presently in use for screening students admissions to gain access to several (but not all) of NYC’s specialized high schools.

NYC mayoral debate wasted educational question moment.

“Should NYC schools be desegregated or improved?”

As professional educators, we are trained to never classify a question as “dumb.” So in that spirit, I will charitably designate this question as terribly uninformed.
My first question (still in charitable mode) about the question was: “Is this question designed to ferret out which of the candidates was for segregated schools?” (Or, where was this going?)

Now I am sure that professional journalism schools can do a much better job raising the standards for preparing their graduates to ask good and meaningful public education questions.

And so, how about this: I think that it is reasonable to assume that when the next mayor takes office (whoever that is), NYC schools will not be integrated; and so perhaps a more usefully practical and high information value question for parents and the general public voters would have been:

“What is your plan to significantly raise Black and Latino student’s academic performance, achievement, and graduation rates, regardless of where in NYC those students attend school?”

In their follow-up questions the journalist must not allow a candidate to venture into that vague politically safe “eduspeak” space that starts off with phrases that sound something like: “It takes a village,” “I believe children are our future,” “All children can learn,” etc. We need to hear some concrete “breaking the business-as-usual NYCDOE organizational culture” answers.

Perhaps one good place a sincere and well-informed mayoral candidate could start their answer is here:
https://majmuse.net/2021/06/06/a-low-political-risk-but-high-educational-reward-initiative-the-next-nyc-mayor-can-easily-institute/

Michael A. Johnson is a former teacher, principal, and school district superintendent. He is the author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership. He is currently completing (Fall 2021) his second book on school administration and leadership: Report From The Principal’s Office.