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Books: Dennis Littky at Thayer High School: A Principal’s Fightfor Improvement

February 21, 1990 6 min read

By Ruth Jordan

By all standards, Dennis Littky’s leadership had a positive influence on the students and teachers at Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H.

In the first three years of his principalship, the school’s absentee rate declined dramatically; the number of college-bound seniors increased significantly; test scores showed steady and substantial improvement; and government and private agencies were giving the school funds for its programs.

But to Mr. Littky’s critics, these measures of success were not enough. They didn’t like his looks or his easy, non-authoritarian ways. They knew that he stood in direct opposition to their belief that education is best transmitted by a firm authority and that repression is the surest way to control rebellion among the young.

The story of the battle fought by Mr. Littky and his supporters to save his position and elect a sympathetic school board is well told in Susan Kammeraad-Campbell’s new book, Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School.

Ms. Kammeraad-Campbell was a reporter for the Keene, N.H., Sentinel when, covering a Winchester school-board meeting, she found an angry dispute in progress. She knew the underlying story had more importance than that evening’s vote, and she eventually entered into an agreement with Mr. Littky to document his work and ideas, as well as those of his backers and opponents.

The result is a readable, journalistic account of the board’s ef4forts to fire Mr. Littky and the subsequent court actions. But it is also a careful examination of Mr. Littky’s leadership style and the efforts of Thayer’s teachers to find new ways of educating those for whom school holds no appeal.

The book has special value because it removes the issue of race from the debate over how best to educate poor children. The students at Thayer are almost all white teenagers, from families who have lived in New England for generations. Their homes are located in an area that appears to be an idyllic rural environment but has one of the highest welfare populations in the state.

The children of Winchester are as alienated as the poorest minority children of the inner city; they suffer from the same sense of hopelessness, the same lack of self-confidence, the same loss of values and goals, and the same limited options for the future.

Mr. Littky’s arrival in Winchester in 1979 must have been quite startling. Big, bearded, and bedraggled, he headed for a mountain cabin, where he was determined he would retreat from hectic city life. He had just completed a successful period as principal of a middle-class, suburban New York school that he had designed himself; he had been respected by the parents, teachers, and students there as well as the broader education community.

But the author lets us know that the change wasn’t so very odd. Mr. Littky had shifted directions abruptly before.

He survived a first winter in the cabin and began to look more and more like a mountain man. If the locals thought him strange--and they did--he won over sufficient numbers of them to gain election to the school board and the state legislature, start a newspaper, and endear himself to a loyal cadre of friends. The latter urged him to apply for the open principal’s position at the high school.

Once Mr. Littky had made the decision to return to education, he did so with the same enthusiasm and high level of energy that marked all of his endeavors. Ms. Kammeraad-Campbell details his methods as a consensus builder. Before school began, he had met not only each teacher but also every child in the school, identified the leaders and the problem spots, helped teachers set goals, and provided a project for a talented dropout that brought the boy back to school in the fall.

Eventually, suspicious teachers were won over by his thoughtful support, problem kids became learners, and teachers and students who made mistakes learned to regard their errors as missteps rather than fatal falls. Beginning with the assumption that the school had to do well for all students, not just the best, he returned pride and a sense of independence to teachers and children whose ability to solve problems on their own had been dulled by oversupervision.

So that teachers could hold conferences with individual students and have more time for planning, he changed the school’s hours. He eliminated bells and intrusive public-address announcements.

He worked with teachers and local businesses to create internships for students who did not do well in structured classrooms. Helping one teacher think through the reasons her students had no interest in a foreign language, he gave her the courage to “throw away the textbook,” abandon her lecture approach, and bring foreign-language speakers into the classroom.

He put all students into small advisory groups so that some adult would know them well. He created a kind of curiosity shop in his office with hats, gadgets, books, and posters. He was just odd enough to be “cool” and tough enough to be respected.

His work was not, of course, without failures. These, along with the growing fear of the town’s entrenched power brokers that this outsider was in some vague way threatening to them and their values, set in motion a campaign against Mr. Littky.

Among his critics was a former newspaper associate who was smart, articulate, and angry. She collected data she believed would show Mr. Littky to be a manipulator and a dangerous subversive.

Taking her ideological guidance from the Eagle Forum, a national conservative group, she harped on Thayer’s encouragement of student journals. The forum warns parents, among other things, against schools that encourage use of journals, because “the nitty gritty of journal writing is the content ... personal problems--family fights, divorces, death, drugs and alcohol, peer conflicts, and love affairs. ...”

Phyllis Schlafly, the group’s founder, had written that, “although used in English class, journal writing has nothing whatever to do with developing the ability to read and write the English language.”

Another enemy of Mr. Littky warned against his alleged reckless spending. She was later accused by the bank that employed her of skimming $500,000 in loan payments.

The opposition managed to temporarily build support in this depressed mill town by appealing to poor people’s fears about higher taxes. The ensuing board struggle and court fight following Mr. Littky’s firing are chronicled in perhaps too much detail, with the good guys and bad guys too obviously dressed in appropriately colored hats. But the story is gripping. Mr. Littky was able to retain his position, and he still serves today as principal of Thayer High School.

It’s clear that the big winners in the fight were the students, teachers, and parents of the community--they continue to have the advantage of Mr. Littky’s ideas and courage.

Readers will learn from the author’s sensitive description of teachers struggling to improve their practice. The book depicts a number of practical approaches to teaching that will interest those searching for fresh curricula and methods.

Perhaps most important, educators will be heartened by the way parents and students rally around their principal and teachers--and how they all eventually win.

Ruth Jordan is a writer and consultant on education.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Books: Dennis Littky at Thayer High School: A Principal’s Fightfor Improvement