A Man of Principle

By Peter Perl — May 01, 1998 27 min read

A man spends 25 years in the District of Columbia schools and now, at 49 years of age, his hair has whitened, his face is lined, his eyes look watery, and his voice cracks with weariness as he stands to speak to a group of 40 teachers. His teachers. He is now The Principal, and he is worried.

He has gathered them together on a gray January afternoon to ask for their help. What he really wants to tell them is that despite all their talent and commitment, unless they all work harder—as hard as they possibly can—most of the 800-plus children at Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C., won’t stand a chance. They won’t stand a chance of rising out of poverty or insecurity or troubled households because they will not be able to read or write or compute well enough to compete in the world.

What John Pannell really wants to tell his teachers is that if they cannot do a better job of educating these children and

making them employable and helping give them fuller lives, then the children—and society—will be in trouble. He wants to tell his teachers that when they go home and go to bed at night, they should ask themselves whether they did as much for the children of Malcolm X that day as they would hope a teacher did for their own children.

But Pannell has already given those speeches many times in his eight years running Malcolm X, and he knows that most of his teachers are already giving everything they have. So instead, he talks to them only about the looming crisis in test scores.

Those scores, he reminds them, have taken on unprecedented urgency. The system has introduced a new test, the most demanding ever, and Malcolm X’s results on a practice exam last May were among the worst in the city: 59 percent of the students failed to demonstrate a “basic” level of reading competency.

“I think we all agree that is unacceptable,” Pannell says with a pained expression. “Parents know it’s unacceptable. Everyone in the city knows that it’s unacceptable.”

The teachers listen respectfully because Pannell speaks with the moral authority of a man who by force of will has begun to turn a failing school around: a man who routinely puts in 12- to 14-hour workdays plus weekends; who seemingly knows not just the name of every student in his school, but also the names of each child’s siblings and parents and grandparents, as well; who visits his students at home and pays for some of their needs out of his own pocket. A man who knows how to beg, borrow, and weasel his way through a dysfunctional bureaucracy to make sure every one of his teachers gets books, supplies, and paychecks.

The teachers—from the rookies who make less than $30,000 a year to the 30-year veterans who have topped out at $56,000—also know Pannell as a hopeless workaholic who can sometimes be a rigid, distant, and overly controlling presence.

So when Pannell begins to scold them about failing to take more advanced training and about the lagging teacher attendance rate and about the need for greater effort, one of them calls out in frustration, “We’re already at 100 percent!”

“Well, if we are at 100 percent,” Pannell shoots back, arching his eyebrows, “we need to get to about 129 percent in the next few months.”

He reminds them of what they already know: For the first time ever, elementary school students will be denied promotion if they fail to meet minimum standards on the reading tests to be given this spring. He also tells his teachers something that most of them don’t know: Entire schools that perform poorly on the tests will be placed on “corrective action status,” which could result in “closure and redesign” and reassignment of staff.

Pannell stands motionless for a moment, letting the news sink in. “What do you think this means for us?” he asks, the question hanging in silence. “If the principal goes, everybody goes.” His face breaks into a wry smile. “It’s like the Titanic—if the principal sinks, the whole ship goes. Everybody.”

There is a cruel irony in the sink-or-swim scenario confronting John Pannell. His success at Malcolm X is a large part of his problem. When he arrived in 1990, the school had had four principals in five years and was known as one of the most chaotic and underachieving in the city. Malcolm X’s enrollment was 370, less than 40 percent of capacity, partly because worried parents chose to send their children elsewhere.

Pannell moved swiftly to change the school’s image and its culture. He found a variety of ways to get rid of a dozen underperforming teachers, docked the pay of tardy faculty and staff, fired ineffective custodians, and instituted a strict policy requiring student uniforms. He organized jazz concerts, revived a school marching band, and started a Malcolm X Day festival to strengthen the bond between the school and the community. He recruited scores of neighborhood volunteers to work in the school and dozens of “partner” organizations to donate time, money, supplies, and computers. Most important, he instilled a sense of stern discipline and an ethic of striving for excellence.

For the school entrance he bought big red rugs embroidered with black lettering: “Malcolm X, A School of Love.” And every single morning over the loudspeakers, he or his assistant would recite Pannell’s new mantra: “Please remember that Malcolm X is a uniform school, and this is a school of love. Malcolm X is a school of love, where there is no hitting, kicking, fighting, or other types of negative behavior.” If you repeated it often enough, he believed, it would become real.

For his trouble, Pannell was vilified by a few teachers and some students and parents who resented the new strictures. The tires on his car were slashed several times, and his windshield and windows were broken, both in the school parking lot and outside his home.

But today, in large part because of Pannell’s reputation and the loyalty of his staff, Malcolm X’s enrollment exceeds 800. It is the largest public elementary school in Washington. Parents from outside Malcolm X’s boundaries now try to transfer their kids in.

The growth of Malcolm X inevitably has contributed to its problems with test scores. Surrounded by aging brick projects, partly abandoned properties, and “transitional” housing for the homeless, the school draws its students from a population that is both poor and transient. Dozens of children transfer in every month, and many of them have woeful academic records and serious learning or behavioral disabilities. Fewer than one in five Malcolm X kids has a father living at home, and only one in six has a parent with a full-time job. Fewer than a third have parents who made it through high school. Many have parents who are drug addicts, in prison, or dead.

All these factors are a recipe for low achievement. But Pannell says he and his staff do not accept that as an excuse. “Despite what everybody writes about Southeast Washington,” he says, “these are some of the best kids you’ll find anywhere. They are not responsible for their conditions. They are not responsible for this environment. But they are responsible for their own behavior and self-control. These children can rise to any occasion, but they must have help, from Head Start through 6th grade.”

Pannell says he identifies with the children because he grew up poor himself, in a segregated school system in West Virginia. His mother was a beautician, and his father worked in a laundry, drove a bus, drove a cab, and ran a youth center. Pannell graduated third in his class and went to Howard University and to George Washington University in D.C. for a master’s degree. He has a brother in prison on drug charges.

At Malcolm X, Pannell practices what he calls “second chance education,” which means that he tries to educate parents who have quit school about the importance of educating their children—and themselves, through Malcolm X’s adult-ed program. He also frequently finds himself trying to teach them how to be parents. “It’s not really a lot of bad kids here,” he says. “There are badly treated kids who come to school here. And they are excited to be here. And we have to get them focused on the reason they are here: to learn. We don’t beat them. We don’t curse them, scold them, yell at them, or yank them.”

Even with all its disadvantages, Malcolm X has had its moments of success: In 1996, its 3rd and 6th graders had the highest and second-highest increases in test scores of any elementary school in the city. Then the city changed the test.

For all his commitment to the children and all his cleverness in working the bureaucracy, Pannell has not been able to raise the test scores in any consistent way. Many, if not most, educators believe that a good principal is the single most vital component in creating a successful school. Pannell believes he is a good principal but knows he does not yet have a successful school. He spends at least three-quarters of his time on disciplinary cases and administrative work and perhaps one-quarter on instruction. Unless he can reverse that ratio, he says, he does not know how his children will make progress.

‘Good morning, Malcolm X!” “Good mor-ning, Mis-ter Pan-nell,” answer 800 singsongvoices. “GOOD MORNING, MALCOLM X!” Pannell’s voice booms twice as loud from the speakers. “GOOD MOR-NING, MIS-TER PAN-NELL!” comes the response, rising nearly to a scream.

“Now THAT sounds like my students!” Pannell exults. “You look good! You look ready! Did you have a good summer?...Did you study?...Did you read?...Did you play?...Are you READY for school?”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, come the shouted answers. The cafeteria, packed with students and parents, buzzes with whispers and muffled giggles.

Pannell’s right arm shoots up, his fingers thrust into a V. It is his sign for silence. A hush falls quickly as his opening-day welcome turns from jubilant to cold sober. His face hardens. His eyes narrow behind his lightly tinted glasses. His slender frame, in crisp blue suit, white shirt, and bright-red alphabet tie, towers over the audience from the stage.

“We have 859 students. You are the largest elementary school in the District,” he says. Parents and students will notice that certain teachers have “moved along” to other jobs, but he is excited to have “new agendas...and new teachers.”

“Let’s understand something, my young boys and girls, my young students, my young geniuses-in-the-making: Boys, if you do not have your uniforms, you don’t go to school. Girls, the same for you....And only students with Malcolm X colors will be allowed on our playground.”

His tone turns harsher: “This past Friday, we had graffiti.” Somebody tagged the school building again. The brick walls have been sandblasted so many times that they cannot easily be cleaned anymore. “You saw who did it, and you still wouldn’t tell,” he says, scolding them collectively for failing to turn in the vandals. “Whose school is this?”

“Our school,” some kids answer.

“And if somebody does something to it, who suffers? You do!”

Pannell furrows his brow and sternly reminds the scores of parents of the new policy that will stop “social promotions.” To the students, he says, “Those of you who don’t carry your notebooks home; those who don’t carry your books home; those of you who don’t carry homework—you need to TRANSFER. Tell your parents right now!”

He issues more warnings to parents: Children who are late for free breakfast do not get fed. Children two minutes late for class are late, and those who are chronically late or absent will fail. Parents will be held responsible for truancy and will be prosecuted and fined $100.

And to the children: “You are not here to misbehave. And if you do, you will be gone. I am going to make it clear. Misbehavior will not be tolerated. Misbehavior will not be tolerated. In this school we demonstrate what? Malcolm what?”

“Malcolm X-cellence,” many kids shout.

“Malcolm what?”

“Malcolm X-cellence!”

“I can’t hear you!”


His final warning is about weapons in school, a simple admonition that any violator will be automatically expelled. “Because Malcolm X is a school of what?” he asks. He repeats with the students, “Malcolm X is a school of love.”

No sooner has Pannell finished preaching his gospel than clusters of students, parents, and grandparents converge on him as he leaves the cafeteria. The girls wear their black plaid Malcolm X jumpers, the boys white shirts, black or red ties, black pants. First, a little girl hugs Pannell. Another joins her, and then another, and then a little boy, and soon a huddle of 1st and 2nd graders are clamoring and smothering him with hugs as he laughs, welcomes them back, and says they’d better get moving to class.

A mother approaches hesitantly and tells Pannell she could not find a white shirt at Kmart for her 1st grade son. “I’m sorry, darlin’, then he can’t stay here. He has to go home,” Pannell says with a pained expression. He bends down to give the little boy a hug but shakes his head sadly at the mother. “I sent you the letter, darlin’.” The one explaining the uniform policy.

“Base to One. Base to One.” Pannell’s hand-held, two-way radio crackles as one of his secretaries reports “overload in the office.” Fourteen mothers and grandmothers are crammed into a waiting room with 19 children they want to transfer into Malcolm X.

All this happens to John Pannell between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a single December day: A young mother breaks down in tears in his office after he tells her that her 7-year-old son is, in all likelihood, mentally retarded.

A grandfather brings his lawyer with him for a lengthy conference, determined to make his case that it would be best for his 3rd grade grandson if he were left back.

An 8-year-old boy has a seizure, leaving him temporarily blinded and panicking. The school nurse calls his mother, but she says she can’t come pick him up. Pannell grabs the phone and nearly shouts, “You have to come here or have someone pick him up, or I have to call the police!”

A malfunction shuts down the school’s only elevator, and he has to radio the building staff to fix it.

A 6th grader is brought to the principal’s office for misbehaving, and after sitting silently and sullenly, he bursts into tears and tells Pannell he cannot control his anger because the other kids are teasing him about the fact that his mother is a prostitute.

A new janitor leaves a dangerous wet spot outside a bathroom. “Do you want to work here?” Pannell asks him. The janitor nods yes. “Then don’t let this happen again, or you walk.”

A baby-faced 1st grader is brought to the principal’s office because he has passed a note to a girl in his class. “I love you we are going to have sex and its going to fill good,” it reads. Pannell investigates and learns that the note was actually written by two of the boy’s older sisters, supposedly as a joke. He decides to visit all the parents tonight.

On this troubling yet typical day at Malcolm X, Pannell’s right foot is in a cast because an angry 1st grader turned over a desk and broke his big toe. On this day, Pannell will run late for various appointments because he has taken a little extra time to deal with each of the day’s problems.

To the young mother of the retarded child, Pannell outlined the measures the school would take to give him therapy and special education and then counseled her: “Please don’t pressure this boy. Give him continual praise....You have to know your baby is doing the best that your baby can.”

To the angry son of the prostitute, Pannell talked gently about how the boy could not change his mother’s behavior and then reviewed with him: “What did I tell you about controlling your anger? Deep breath. Count to 10. Freeze. Hold your head stiff. It’s easy, man. It’s easy, man.” But he warned him, “I’m going to be frank with you. If it happens again, I’m going to put you on the street for 10 days.”

To the grandfather who wanted his 3rd grader left back, Pannell made an extended pitch. And by the end of the discussion, Pannell convinced him that the child could pass, particularly since the grandfather agreed to become a volunteer reading assistant in his classroom.

The grandfather’s lawyer, Theresa Watson, who has witnessed only a few of the goings-on around Pannell’s office, asks how he puts up with all the stresses of his work. He laughs and says he is not sure. “I have many opportunities other than this,” he says, referring to this job, which pays him $70,000 a year. “I have many opportunities where I would not have to kill myself, but this is what I have chosen to do.”

At 2 o’clock, Pannell, who usually misses lunch, decides to pop in on a 6th grade math class and test the students. He quizzes them on exponents for a while, and to make it exciting, he fishes a dollar out of his pocket and offers it as a prize for answering a tough question: What is 549.1 times 10 squared? A girl wins it. Later, he tempts them with a $20 bill, but the kids are getting a bit rowdy, calling out answers and missing the misdirection in his question: What is a right triangle’s degrees times seven squared? “I’m disappointed,” he says when nobody wins the $20 jackpot. “I’m leaving, because you are not serious. You just want to holler out answers and not listen.”

As the day wears on, the students and teachers long gone, Pannell surveys a mound of paperwork he has to complete—timecards, checks to be signed, forms to fill several teacher vacancies—and a number of other tasks he hasn’t gotten to. It will be another late night. His mood darkens. “I can’t work any more than I do. I can’t do any more. There is nothing that I am not doing,” he says. “You reach a point where you just say...whatever...whatever.”

He reflects on the hours he puts in and on what they’ve cost him. “I missed my own daughter growing up,” he says. “I call her ‘Baby’ and she says, ‘Daddy, I’m no baby. I’m grown up.’ She’s in her second year of college.” Just a week earlier, Pannell and his wife, Sheila, visited his family in West Virginia for Thanksgiving, “and my mother looked at me and said, ‘Wow, you have aged. It’s time for you to leave.’ And I said, ‘You’re right.’”

Outside the school, in the darkness of evening, Pannell lights a cigarette and stands in the cold, looking out over the old Jewish cemetery across the street. “I’ll have 25 years in at the end of this year,” he says. “I am thinking this year may be it for me.” Later, though, he will laugh off the idea of leaving.

There is learning going on in Room 401. Mr. Lumpkins is giving his 4th graders a reading lesson unlike anything these kids have had before. Brian Lumpkins, a second-year teacher who is 28, is using a wireless modem to connect an IBM ThinkPad to the Internet. He is surfing the Web and taking his class to a Web site he found. Here, projected on a six-foot screen, digital technology brings an old African folk tale to life. With each click, a new color drawing comes into focus on the screen, along with several sentences of text about the adventures of a tiger, a spider, and a firefly.

“The majority of my parents don’t make the connection between what people do and the effects on their children.” John Pannell, principal The 18 students are sitting on the floor, eyes riveted to the screen. “Me! Me!” a handful of them clamor to be called on to read. They are competing hard because Mr. Lumpkins is allowing those who read and behave well to take turns operating the computer mouse.

“Make sure you read it just the way it is printed,” Lumpkins says firmly. “Make sure you observe all the punctuation.” The children’s reading is halting but competent, though they don’t recognize a few words, like “eventually,” “scheme,” and “huge,” so Lumpkins stops to sound out and explain them.

Only one or two students are tuned out. One boy keeps making noise, and Lumpkins orders him to take a five-minute timeout. The rest of the class is buzzing with interest. As each screen brings up a few more sentences, Lumpkins asks the students what they think will happen next. Everyone has a theory.

The environment at Malcolm X can be quite distracting: During this lesson, police sirens wail three times on the street. The hallways outside 401 are particularly noisy because Malcolm X was built, in 1973, as an “open space” school—with classrooms separated by portable blackboards and bookcases instead of walls. Nonetheless, the Internet reading lesson is clearly a success. Children have not only practiced and enjoyed reading but also have learned about Web sites and search engines.

“We have things here you would never expect in a school like this,” says Pannell proudly, regarding his concerted effort to bring technology to his classrooms.

The school operates five computer labs with 10 to 15 machines in each and uses sophisticated software to allow students to progress through self-paced math and reading lessons under the guidance of teachers and computer aides. In addition, almost every classroom is outfitted with several computers, and the school recently had its wiring upgraded to provide Internet access to every class. Pannell says he is particularly excited about this, planning “virtual field trips” for kids who rarely even get out of their neighborhood.

According to the school system’s records, Malcolm X over the years has accumulated 60 computers. But Pannell actually has 156 working computers, thanks mostly to the partnerships he has developed with the Defense Intelligence Agency, a local power company, and several other businesses, churches, and organizations. He has carted dozens of machines to the school in his pickup truck, and he’s learned to operate and install them. He has recruited volunteers to help maintain them. He secured a federal technology grant to buy 20 $600 wireless modems for use in the school library and classrooms.

So early in the school year, when Malcolm X got a fax from headquarters saying that the central office was coming out to take computer inventory, Pannell flew into a brief rage. Like most principals, he has endured years of scarce resources, uncertain supplies, and difficulty getting machines fixed. “Do you think I’m going to let the computers become part of their inventory?” he asked. “Do they really think for a minute that any principal is going to give them to them?”

So when the time came, all school system property was properly inventoried. But somehow the other machines were not immediately available for inspection.

The winter holiday assembly is supposed to be joyous, but Pannell has a little trouble getting into a festive mood because the tires on his ’87 Mazda have been slashed again this week. Instead, he has decided to retaliate. On every student’s chair at the December 22 event is a neon-pink letter home, informing parents and guardians that all after-school programs—all tutoring, all clubs—will be suspended until further notice.

“As we often hear the African proverb that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child,’ it is also true that it takes the whole community to support the school,” Pannell’s letter says. “We want to provide extracurricular activities to our students and families, but the personal costs, personal risks, and personal losses are proving to be too high!

“Our school community members do not step forward to identify those persons responsible for acts of theft and vandalism. ...Therefore, until the perpetrators of these acts are identified, we must discontinue all activities” outside school hours.

Pannell believes his car was attacked by a parent of one of the dozens of children he has suspended recently, but he knows he will never be able to prove that. Yet he wants to send a message to the community. “The majority of my parents don’t make the connection between what people do and the effects on their children,” he says. “They don’t make the connection between seeing people writing graffiti on the wall or a guy dumping trash at the school or breaking bottles or stealing something—they don’t connect that to their children.”

The holiday assembly is another chance to promote parental involvement, and Pannell stresses that parents are encouraged to come see their children perform songs and dances. He also arranges for a local congregation, Grace Apostolic Church, to give out dozens of huge holiday food baskets for needy families.

As families are called up to the stage to receive their holiday bounty, Pannell helps distribute boxes filled with turkeys, canned goods, cereal, rice, and macaroni. As a church lady begins preaching to the audience—"Please keep in mind that Jesus died for our sins"—Pannell contrives to disappear. As grandmothers, mothers, and a few fathers start hauling away the boxes, the church lady breaks into song: “Always remember Jesus, Jesus/Always remember Jesus, Jesus.”

Pannell is still nowhere to be seen because the annual food giveaway involves a tradeoff: The church wants to save souls, and Pannell wants families fed. He knows that some parents, staff, and students are Seventh-Day Adventists, Muslims, or adherents of other denominations who might be put off by the religious content. But he’s willing to risk their anger if it means getting food for hungry families. He just disappears for the evangelical part of the program so he won’t appear to be endorsing a church-state marriage.

A highlight of the program is Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, donning a red Santa hat and reading “The Night Before Christmas,” with children from the Head Start class playing the roles of mice and reindeer. But the grand finale comes when the curtain rises to reveal Pannell playing a soft, moody “Silent Night” on the piano. He slows the tempo and continues playing as he delivers his holiday sermon to the children:

“Boys and girls. This is one of the happiest times of the year, and one of the most serious times. I wonder if you know that you are children only once. And if you know that Santa Claus only comes when you are small and only when you are good....As you go home, I want you to think about everything you did in 1997, and everything you need to change in 1998. I want you to think about your grades and whether you can do better. And I want you to remember that you have teachers and school administrators who love you, and parents who struggle to take care of you. We want you to go home and put your arms around your parents and say, ‘Mommy, I love you....Daddy, I love you.’ And we want you to know that we here at Malcolm X love you.”

After the assembly, Pannell exchanges hugs with dozens of students and a stream of teachers he encounters on their way home for the winter break. An hour later, the custodians are cleaning up, everyone else has gone home, and Pannell is getting ready to close school for the holidays. A thin, worn-out woman in a shiny leather jacket approaches him, sobbing because she arrived too late for her food basket. Pannell calms her down and arranges for her to get one.

When she leaves, Pannell closes his door and leans back in his chair so far that it looks like it will tip over. “I think this may be my last year,” he says.

As he is preparing to leave, around 5 p.m., Pannell is approached by a young workingman who lives nearby. He tells Pannell that a 2nd grader from Malcolm X has no Christmas presents this year. Actually, he doesn’t think the boy has much food either. “It’s pitiful,” he says. “The kid is knocking on my door, and he asks my girlfriend for food. The mother is a crack addict....She gets her check on the 31st, and it’s gone in a few days.”

Pannell’s face is ashen, and he asks the man to please call Child Protective Services. But the man winces and says he does not want to get involved. So Pannell thanks him for the information, makes the call himself, and tells the city agency that this family should be investigated. He is put on hold.

A man spends 25 years in a school system, and he still has to deal with broken copying machines. So as 1998 begins at Malcolm X, two of the three copiers are down, and The Principal is struggling to get out the first weekly teachers’ bulletin of the year. Much of the four-page communique is mundane, but part of it is meant to be inspirational, so he puts it in capital letters:


Teachers make or break the school, and Pannell is careful about hiring. When the school year started, he had five vacancies for various specialists, but when headquarters called to ask if he needed jobs filled, he said no. It was a bureaucratic trick: He did not want to waste time with the caliber of candidates usually supplied through headquarters; he’d prefer doing his own search with his own network of contacts.

Over the years, Pannell has lost some of his best teachers to retirement, to burnout, and to suburban jurisdictions where the stress is lower and the pay higher. In January, he decides to rehire three retired Malcolm X teachers who are particularly good at teaching reading. (The hirings occur only after Pannell, in a heated telephone call to the central office, gets the three teachers recertified. “Why do you have to make everything so damn complicated?” he barks into the phone.) The rehirings are part of the overall strategy he outlines when he gathers his staff to talk about the tests looming in the spring.

“We have to increase our students’ scores,” he tells the January teachers meeting. “We have no choice.”

“Let’s be real. Let’s be honest,” he says. “All your work. All the visits to students’ homes. All the xeroxing. All the hours of work you do at home. All of this is not as important as test scores. This is what we are judged on.”

Pannell surprises some of them by declaring, “I believe in teaching to the test"—he is speaking aloud what school administrators are often loath to admit—and he proceeds to outline his multipart plan for doing it. Each teacher would start by charting every child’s raw scores from last October’s practice test in each specific skill area, such as word identification, word meaning, sentence reading, and phonetic and structural analysis. Teachers thereby could determine in which skills the greatest number of students in their classes showed the greatest deficiency and tailor their lessons accordingly.

Even that would not be enough, though. “I’m going to be frank with you,” he says. “I want you to teach after school. I can pay all of you, but we have to produce. Can you handle it? Will you do it? Do you want to do it?”

The room buzzes. Some of the teachers seem surprised. Pannell says he has decided to resume after-school tutoring, along with other programs, at the end of January even though someone slashed two of his tires again just after the New Year. His December warning letter to the community did produce several tips, even the name of an alleged culprit, but he decided it wasn’t worth pursuing.

Pannell had planned all along to restart the after-school activities, particularly the tutoring and homework assistance, which drew almost 200 students in the fall. He is not sure how many families really want tutoring and how many just use it as free child care, but he knows that many children have no quiet place at home and no parent to help with homework. The tutoring is also a potentially important weapon in the fight to improve test scores. Using federal grant money, he can offer teachers $15 an hour for after-school tutoring. Now he needs at least half a dozen teachers to participate.

“I need your help,” he tells them, sounding weary again. “The only people with a one-year contract are the principals. A principal has to have people who share the same responsibility, the same vision, the same drive.” In the past, he says, a principal’s job security was often based on popularity. “Now, the system is requiring us to be honest with ourselves.

“Are we all on the same page?”

The teachers nod in agreement.

Pannell summons up some extra energy and sounds enthusiastic. With the new charts of the raw scores, with the three new teachers who will help teach the teachers how to teach reading, with after-school tutoring and with extra computer practice-test time, Malcolm X will raise its scores.

“If we work at this every single day, we will get there,” he says. “If we don’t do it, our children will fail.”

“Can we do this?” Pannell asks.

“Yes,” the teachers answer.

“Won’t we do this?”


Afterward, half a dozen teachers come forward. They will offer their time to tutor after school at Malcolm X.