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Students at Milwaukee’s Pulaski High march in support of principal

May 14, 2013 by

As far as protests go, it was pretty modest.

About 25 students with homemade signs, marching out of class at Pulaski High School late Monday morning to protest the job of their principal being posted by the district administration, an indication that popular school leader Darrell Williams could be replaced or at least have to reapply for his job after a year and a half leading the school.

But in light of the continued upheaval in leadership at one of the most challenging high schools in Milwaukee – and the state – the students’ questions were apt: Why is this happening? And how would a change make things any better?

Those are questions the Milwaukee Public Schools administration is reluctant to answer, as personnel matters are thorny and often fraught with internal politics. But it’s a real concern for staff, students and the community when leadership is unstable at the very institutions most in need of strong principals.

Last week the district made an unusual decision to replace the principal of Bay View Middle/High School a month before the end of the school year. At a time when the school is once again in transition, Jonathan Leinfelder was replaced with interim principal Dan Donder, the longtime former principal of Riverside High School who had retired from the district in March.

Leinfelder was on the job for less than one full academic year; the district had hired him to replace former Bay View Principal Jesse Mazur, who had one year in the post. Despite a letter signed by Mazur’s supporters to keep him at the school, he moved to Audubon Technology and Communication Center, a middle and high school at 3300 S. 39th St.

The principal position may also be posted at James Madison Academic Campus, a school that has seen four principals since 2010, including Williams, according to the school’s website.

Three years ago, the high schools that constitute the lowest-performing schools in MPS – and in the state – were grouped into a region headed by Dennis Queen, recruited by new superintendent Gregory Thornton. Pulaski was one of them.

The district accepted $45 million in extra federal grant funding to help improve most of those schools, and those funds mandated reforms that in some cases called for replacing the principal.

But leadership has turned over more than once in almost every high-focus high school since those initial changes, save for Vincent High School under Principal Matthew Boswell.

In some cases, school leadership changes because of retirements.

MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia on Monday downplayed the changes at Bay View and potential changes at Pulaski and James Madison, pointing out they would affect just three of the district’s 23 high schools.

He said school leadership is a critical component of any effort to improve student achievement.

“This is especially true in high schools where there are complex challenges,” he said in the statement. “We continue to look for leadership that can meet these challenges and support our efforts to improve achievement and school climate.”

Two Pulaski seniors who organized the walkout Monday said they were bewildered by the situation at their building.

“We honestly don’t know why they want to remove (Williams),” said Jameehah Reynolds, 18.

Fellow senior Rashawn Jackson, 19, added that suspensions have gone down and the school’s attendance rate has risen since Williams was brought on to help turn around the school midyear in November 2011.

More structure

The school’s average academic performance in core subjects such as reading and math was still below both the district and state 10th-grade averages in the fall of 2012. But Reynolds and Jackson said the climate in the building has improved significantly since Williams implemented more structure.

Before he came, disorder and fights were frequent and the cafeteria was often chaotic, they said. Williams raised expectations, and he emphasized student leadership and college applications, they added.

Jackson, wearing a school blazer with a name tag, said he and other students regularly mentored younger high schoolers and also local middle schoolers. Jackson is headed to Rust College in Mississippi this fall on a scholarship; Reynolds is studying for the military’s entrance exam.

Motorists could see Pulaski students waving signs and chanting “We want Dr. Williams!” on S. 27th St. and W. Oklahoma Ave. late Monday morning.

Williams watched from the grass, looking moderately bemused by students shouting his name.

He reiterated the progress the school had made under his tenure, but also couldn’t answer – or preferred not to answer – why his job was on the line.

via Students at Milwaukee’s Pulaski High march in support of principal.

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