Love Him or Not, Joe Clark Stirs Emotions

January 20, 1988 6 min read
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The New Jersey high-school principal that U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett praises as a model leader for inner-city schools provokes mixed reactions among other urban principals, many of whom question their colleague’s methods.

The story of Mr. Clark’s battle with the Paterson, N.J., school board symbolizes, they say, the dilemma of providing both discipline and instructional leadership in an urban setting.

But that dilemma, a number of principals indicated last week, has been ignored in the blaze of newspaper and television-news stories about “Crazy Joe” Clark, the bullhorn-wielding principal of Eastside High School.

“Joe Clark is an embarrassment,” said Santee Ruffin, director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“He’s kicking over the reputation other urban school principals have worked hard to build up,” said Mr. Ruffin, who has been a high-school principal in centercity Philadelphia. “This man is coming off as a hero for people who have no expectations of minority students.”

“Mr. Clark is part of a coterie of principals known as people who can ‘clean up urban schools,’ who pride themselves as knowing nothing about curriculum,” said a researcher with the office of education research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department. The researcher described Mr. Clark as “Rambo-style, Hollywoodish and romantic.”

“People like Clark define their job narrowly and point to their success,” he added, “but success at what, turning a school into a prison?”

‘He Had Courage’

Some admire Mr. Clark for having the courage to stand up for what he believes in.

“Mr. Clark should be commended because he did what he needed to do,’' said Joseph Hairston, principal of the Suitland High School in Maryland. “He had courage. But I wouldn’t say I would do the same thing in that situation.”

“I agree with Secretary Bennett when he says there should be more Joe Clarks in the world, if Mr. Clark is motivating students to learn,” said Felton Johnson, principal of Intermediate School 229 in the South Bronx, N.Y. Mr. Johnson noted that he runs his own school with a certain amount of “creative tension.”

“Any principal needs to run a school with a strong hand, but there are degrees and circumstances that dictate how strong,” he said.

Mr. Clark’s most controversial move has been the expulsion of about 60 students last month for having failing grades and being what he described as “leeches on the building, taking away from the educational process of other, younger people.”

Several Paterson school-board members have asked why, if Mr. Clark was such a good principal, the students were doing so poorly.

Decisions about how to cope with disruptive students are among the most important an urban principal can make, said Victor Herbert, superintendent of schools for the Bronx in New York City.

Mr. Herbert is the former principal of the famed Samuel Gompers High School, once dubbed the most dangerous in the country. His leadership style in creating another inner-city-school success story at Samuel Gompers has often been contrasted with Mr. Clark’s.

“My principals tell me that Joe Clark has become a kind of folk hero among the teachers who would like to see the so-called ‘problems’ removed from their classrooms,” said Mr. Herbert. “There’s no doubt that all principals have a ‘pia’ list--a list of students who are a Pain In the Ass. And they often think, ‘If only I could get rid of these kids I could turn this school around.”’

“But these ‘problems’ are human beings, and it’s our job to work with them,” he added.

The only recourse for disruptive students is collaborative action with the school’s staff and the students’ parents, said Mr. Herbert, who suggested that the most desirable result of such discussions is agreement on an in-school alternative program.

“You can’t let these kids go onto the streets or send them home to work in an empty apartment,” he said. “That’s a reward for bad behavior.”

Mr. Herbert noted that there are other options as well for dealing with disruptive students: transfering them to another school, moving them into a General Educational Development program, or imposing some type of detention. But he contended that even if students must be sent to an alternative school, the goal should be to bring them back into “the mainstream.”

The Power of Principals

The constraints on a principal’s course of action include, other school officials noted last week, not only standards of educational leadership but the law of the land.

“I think that principals should have more power to hire or fire, and to expel or retain, and they should do it within the law,” Secretary Bennett said this month of Mr. Clark’s mass expulsions of students. ''But there’s no constitutional right not to be expelled if you are violating the rules or violating the law itself.”

But school-law experts pointed out that the 1975 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Goss v. Lopez, established that the 14th Amendment’s due-process right applies to state laws governing student expulsion and suspension.

The ruling states that no student may be suspended for 10 or more days without due-process procedures. Most states require a hearing before a student may be suspended for more than five days. New Jersey law calls for a hearing if a student is discharged for any period of time.

Alternative Schools

Principals acknowledged that Mr. Clark did not have the option of sending disruptive students to an alternative school, a lack in the Paterson school system that he had often urged the school board to address.

Willie Gentry, principal of Worthington High School in Houston, said such alternatives were vital.

Mr. Gentry said he treats a student’s misbehavior as a symptom of a larger problem. He encourages his staff to try to determine and meet the problem student’s special needs.

But if the needs of disruptive students cannot be met at his school, he said, he believes they are better off being sent to an alternative school as soon as possible.

He said he had never had to resort to the tactics Mr. Clark has used. “Joe Clark speaks to the situation he is in, but I don’t think that’s the answer to being an educator in 1988.”

Discipline Not Enough

“Discipline by itself is not going to turn an instructional challenge around,” said Michael Levine, a spokesman for the educational leadership arm of the New York Urban Coalition, an organization that offers training for inner-city school faculty.

The coalition teaches school principals to become “conflict managers,” to empower teachers and involve them in the leadership process, and to remain--above all--focused on the critical areas of the academic program.

“An effective principal does not walk around with a bullhorn; he4thinks of himself as an educator,” said Mr. Ruffin. “The principal must get the kids to recognize the purpose of coming to school.”

Frictions With Teachers

Though Mr. Clark has won enthusiastic support from many Paterson parents and students, some question the way he handles his own staff. Loyalty is demanded, and faculty members have their own set of rules.

Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, said 44 grievances have been filed with the union against Mr. Clark since 1982, more than have been lodged against any other principal in the district.

Members of a state monitoring team reported that many teachers interviewed at Eastside were afraid to answer basic questions. Mr. Clark has said that in his school, he is “the constitution.”

Mr. Herbert said he would not like to see principals in his district become similarly dictatorial.

“Plato said the best form of government is finding an enlightened philosopher/king and letting him or her rule,” he said. “I’m not sure Joe Clark is the enlightened philosopher/king of our time."--LJ

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 1988 edition of Education Week as Love Him or Not, Joe Clark Stirs Emotions


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