The power principal

Is Andre Douyon the future of education reform or an out-of-control autocrat? The teachers who have worked for him have plenty to say on the subject.

Even Jaime Escalante couldn’t <i>Stand and Deliver</i> Hiram Johnson from its status as one of California’s lowest performing schools. But the new principal says he can.

Even Jaime Escalante couldn’t Stand and Deliver Hiram Johnson from its status as one of California’s lowest performing schools. But the new principal says he can.

photo by Larry Dalton

Before he came to Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, Jaime Escalante was a teacher at Garfield High in Los Angeles and had already proved that he could work wonders in the classrooms of a struggling school.

Garfield had 3,800 students, almost all from low-income, poorly educated families. Escalante started at Garfield in 1974 teaching basic mathematics, and five years later initiated a small calculus class. The program grew and, over the years, had a disproportionately high number of successful graduates. In 1988, the film Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos, was made about Escalante’s success as a calculus teacher and educational miracle worker.

With this background, Escalante arrived at Hiram Johnson in 1991. Six years later he told a newspaper

reporter: “When I came, I did have in mind to create another Garfield, my dream was similar to that. But building a calculus program here is much more difficult.” Escalante also related the story of a parent who was irate when he demanded that the person’s child stop cutting class. He was told by the parent, “You are in the wrong place, sir. Go back to Hollywood. We don’t need people like you.” And in 1998, Escalante left Hiram Johnson, a defeated man who had tried to help a troubled school but found out it was a nearly impossible job.

During Escalante’s seven years at Hiram Johnson, the school went through three principals and 13 vice principals. Last July, the district hired Hiram Johnson’s latest principal, Andre Douyon. Douyon’s mission is to confront the status quo of low expectations, and reinvent the way education is delivered in all areas at the troubled school, as Escalante was able to do with the calculus program in Los Angeles. The task is daunting and requires the enactment of an array of long overdue reforms, and a strong and persuasive personality to see them through to fruition.

In his 25 years in education, Douyon has been a classroom teacher, ESL instructor, summer school administrator, staff development specialist and a counselor. A native of Haiti, Douyon is fluent in English, Spanish and French. Douyon says he has ambitious plans for Hiram Johnson, requiring the school to operate with the accountability of a Fortune 500 corporation where education is the product, students are the customers and the community the stockholders.

Although no one disputes that Douyon is intelligent, insightful and passionate about education reform, at least some parents, teachers and other staff are expressing strong reservations about Douyon’s management style and methods for changing Hiram Johnson. Now at the end of his first year, some problem areas resemble those at the three schools where Douyon previously had relatively short stays in the principal’s office. Douyon came to Hiram Johnson shortly after leaving Edison High School in Fresno under a cloud of controversy. In April 2000, the Fresno Teachers Association submitted an exhaustive complaint to the Fresno Unified School District, formally accusing Douyon of failure to comply with state laws or district regulations. The areas identified were related to employee evaluations, unprofessional conduct, impulsive and faulty decision actions, uneven and inadequate student discipline administration, poor planning, excessive authoritarianism and other issues.

In essence, the documents reveal a pattern whereby Douyon would take control of a school and implement changes in many areas, from the allocation of school funds to teacher assignments. Inevitably, some changes would be questioned, or otherwise resisted, by at least a portion of the teachers and other staff. Using the broad powers inherent in the principal’s position, including employee evaluations, control of school purse strings and the administration of student discipline, teachers who do not resist his changes are rewarded, and those who do are allegedly punished, effectively polarizing the school staff and triggering significant staff turnover. Douyon defends his methods, and the turmoil they create, as the price of initiating school reform, and, by hiring Douyon, the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) apparently condones his tactics.

Hiram Johnson is in the middle of a $9 million restoration project, and on a Friday morning in June, Douyon starts the day clutching a walkie-talkie while patrolling the school parking lot as his students begin to funnel in. This day is not quite routine, as a group of teenagers who do not attend Hiram Johnson hold giant posters of aborted fetuses along the sidewalks in front of the school, while handing out pro-life literature to the students arriving for the school day. A group of Hiram Johnson alpha males exchange words with one of the sidewalk poster holders, and, walking over to the pack, Douyon has a few words of his own with his students, pointing out that the demonstrators have a right to be there. “In a way, I welcome that they are here,” he explains, in reference to the sidewalk group, upon returning from his brief student interface. “It gives us an opportunity to teach tolerance and free speech issues. It’s a teaching moment.”

Five-year veteran of Hiram Johnson, Robin Kafouros, questions the reform methods of principal Andre Douyon, and may be paying the price.

photo by Larry Dalton

By almost any standard of review, Hiram Johnson is challenged. Designated an inner-city school, it sits at the intersection of 14th Avenue and 65th Street. Student test scores are consistently below state and national averages, and dropout rates at the school are the highest in the district. In 1997, after the school had become one of the most violent in the district, it became the first to have full-time police officers assigned to patrol the campus. Two years later, a senior was suspended when a “hit list,” with the names of 14 students, was found in his backpack.

But in June 2000, the district’s direction took a new course, and Hiram Johnson was in the car. At that time, SCUSD was selected in a nationwide competition as one of 10 urban school districts with under-performing schools to receive a 15-month planning grant of $250,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s “Schools for a New Society Program.” The district was chosen for its “potential to overcome entrenched barriers to change, ignore outdated assumptions and identify creative solutions to chronic problems,” according to the Carnegie organization.

The district has a history of questionable decision-making but, under public pressure, has gradually induced itself to reform. And in 1999, voters expressed renewed confidence in the district by approving a school bond measure, which will provide $195 million for school upgrades and improvements. Earlier this month, the district held a massive media event at Sacramento High School to announce that it had completed its Carnegie-funded strategic plan and the implementation of the revolutionary vision for reform would begin.

Ironically, at about the same time that the district was accepted into phase one of the reform-focused Carnegie program, they were also interviewing principal candidates for Hiram Johnson. Like teachers, principals are in short supply, and finding qualified candidates willing to work at a school with Hiram Johnson’s history can be a strategic challenge in itself. Education experts generally agree that turning around an under-performing school like Hiram Johnson requires a coordinated effort enlisting the cooperation of parents, teachers, administrators and other school staff, and at the center of that effort is the school principal. UC Davis education professor Jon Wagner says that to enact the changes necessary to turn around a troubled school, a principal needs to achieve a “critical mass of support” from teachers, parents and administrators.

Yet despite the near universal agreement among education authorities that the principal plays a pivotal, catalyzing role within the school reform equation, and in the face of his controversial employment history, in July 2000, the Sacramento City Unified School District selected Douyon to run Hiram Johnson. Although the district appears not to have reviewed or considered the over 150-page complaint submitted to the Fresno Unified School District and Board of Education, the SN&R has obtained the compilation. SCUSD superintendent, Jim Sweeney, and associate superintendent of high schools, Rich Owen, who were primarily responsible for hiring Douyon, said they were unaware of the formal complaint. In an interview for this article, Sweeney dismissed the complaint as a relatively routine union tactic.

The Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) compiled 19 signed statements from teachers and other staff from the schools where Douyon held the principal’s post, that clearly call into question his people skills and ability to retain staff. From his first position as principal at King Estates Middle School in Oakland, to Steve Garvey Junior High in Lindsay, to his stint at Edison High in Fresno, the same issues seem to reoccur.

Issues cited by the FTA, based on the complaints it received, allege unprofessional conduct by Douyon, including an imperious attitude, threatening posture, uneven application of rules, wrongful assertions implying fault, discrimination in singling out specific teachers for negative treatment and disrespect/excessive control during personal conferences. Although each teacher’s complaint involved a unique issue or issues, the way each was treated by the principal displays a consistent pattern of conduct, and resulted in an unusually high rate of staff turnover.

One complaint was from James Ferguson, a teacher in the technology lab of the King Estates Middle School in Oakland where Douyon was principal for the 1996-97 school year and through March 1998.

Ferguson said the staff was stable until Douyon arrived. “Of the approximately 30-plus teachers on our staff when Mr. Douyon began, 27 had left by the time he exited 18 months later. While some left to teach at district high schools with the reconfiguration of the district’s middle schools, most however, in my opinion, left to escape the administration of Andre Douyon.”

According to the FTA, the pattern continued when Douyon arrived at Edison in January 1999. According to the Fresno Teachers Association complaint submitted to the district, between January 1999 and April 2000 the association documented that 33 certificated staff had left the school. Of those, five were terminated, three retired, one resigned for personal reasons, two took a leave of absence and 22 either voluntarily transferred within the Fresno Unified School District or terminated to work in other districts. The association also noted that 19 of the 33 “expressed dissatisfaction with Douyon/Site Administration as either the major factor or a significant factor in their decision(s) to leave.”

Special education teacher Mike Adams lasted one year before quitting in frustration. Adams says his pleas to correct unmanageable class conditions were ignored.

photo by Larry Dalton

Ten veteran Edison teachers or other staff submitted written statements in the FTA complaint. One of the complaints was from librarian Glenda Bellamy, who was previously at Edison for 21 years. “I voluntarily transferred from Edison to Yosemite Middle School because I did not respect or trust Andre Douyon, and I did not want to be under his authority,” she wrote. Bellamy portrays Douyon as a micromanager, re-routing all requests for textbooks, library and other school supplies though his office or designated staff.

As an FTA faculty representative, Bellamy fielded complaints from other staff members and listed her “general opinion and judgments regarding Douyon’s character traits as they were revealed by the experience of those teachers: Conscious use of authoritarian intimidation to the degree of personal abuse … He must have control … Non-collaborative and hasty in decision-making … Controlling and even dishonest in his communications; will utter false statements to cover his errors … Personally vindictive; consciously pressures people; threatens dismissal or non-renewal over trivial issues; will consciously ravage a faculty to eliminate critics … Elitist in attitude and operation; demonstrates an aristocrat’s mentality in relations with subordinates … “

The other nine complaints raise issues unique to each author’s position at the school, but overlap and parrot similar complaints questioning Douyon’s treatment of staff. However, unlike the complaints from King Estates and Garvey, Douyon submitted written responses to each at this school. Douyon counters each specific, unique issue, leaving a he said/she said determination to be made. But in addressing the recurring issues related to his treatment of staff, Douyon begins most complaints with a nearly boilerplate paragraph.

“Your issue with my personality, your references toward other staff members’ accusations, and any innuendoes regarding of my professional ethics has no place, either in your criticism or in my response,” reads one. “I can only offer a response that speaks to the specific allegations of my actions towards you. My personality or mannerisms have no place either in your criticism or in my response,” says another. “Your issue with my personality, your innuendoes about my behavior prior to coming to Fresno Unified School District, and your references to other staff have no place either in your criticism of me or in my response,” reads a third. An ends-justifies-the-means pattern emerges where the civil treatment of teachers and staff, who are slow or reluctant to adapt to change, appears to be an irrelevant consideration.

Today, citing the matters as confidential personnel issues, Douyon won’t elaborate further, except to say, “My [written] answers should give you a clue. I was put there to clean things up and that’s what I did. The end result speaks for itself.” It might be a stretch to assess an “end result” to his relatively brief 18-month stint at Edison, but Douyon points to the fact that the school earned a Governor’s Performance Award for its API state test scores for the year that he held the principal’s position.

But Larry Moore, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, speculates that the actual end result was that, to save face, the district quietly asked Douyon to find another job. Moore said the union had never submitted such a massive complaint against a principal in its recent history. “There has been nothing like Douyon,” he said. Douyon and the district deny he was forced out, and he says that he took the Sacramento position to be closer to his family and home in Yuba City.

Moore is also surprised to learn that Douyon was hired by SCUSD and wonders if the district did its homework before retaining Douyon. If nothing else, Moore says that Douyon’s short periods of employment at each school at which he has been principal should be a red flag. “The least it should do is warrant an investigation,” he said. Superintendent Sweeney implies a partial concession to this point, noting, “You would want them to be there more than 18 months,” in reference to Douyon’s tenure at Edison.

Behind the curtain of education reform it is no secret that in order to improve a school with deep-rooted problems, many existing teachers and staff will have to be, subtly or not so subtly, shown the door. And the judgment of Douyon’s history of inflicting substantial turnover at his previous schools should be considered in this context. It is also, however, reasonable to expect that a measure of appropriateness, fairness and civility be applied by a principal when cleaning house at a troubled school. There is some evidence that Douyon may have gone beyond just purging the dead wood from the high schools he has led, and into the realm of exorcising nearly any wood, dead or not, that questions his authority or master plan for a school. His actions in reforming the Special Education department at Hiram Johnson may illustrate this issue, and also reveal a pattern consistent with previous complaints Douyon has generated.

Special education students usually enter high school at between the third- and seventh-grade skill levels. The students may have any number of physical, mental or emotional disabilities that mandate additional attention from educators. Depending on the severity of their disability, they may spend the full school day in special education classes, or attend a combination of regular and special education classes. An IEP or Individual Education Plan, developed by a team consisting of parents, special education staff, general education staff and, if needed, a district psychologist or nurse, determines class placement, and the ratio of special and general education classes. Under federal law, the IEP must be followed by the school.

Mike Adams and Robin Kafouros are, or in Adams’ case, were, special education teachers at Hiram Johnson.

Hiram Johnson principal, Andre Douyon, center, and School-to-Work Coordinator Louise Stymeist, right, lend an ear to education consultant Joni Quintal.

photo by Larry Dalton

Adams had a nagging, idealistic yearning to be a teacher during his first career as a merchant seaman. But after an injury prevented him from returning to sea, he indulged. “I did not go into teaching for the money, I make half of what I used to make,” he says. After graduating from the CSUS Special Education Department, Adams stepped into his first classroom at Hiram Johnson High School in January 2000, at age 47.

Adams says he considers special education to be a continuation of a struggle that began with the civil rights movement. But he was shocked that the first struggle he faced would be trying to teach with almost no educational materials and no existing curriculum. “It is still astounding to me that in a district with thousands of years of collective Special Education experience, no one has put together a curriculum for Special Education at the high school level,” he wrote in a letter to the district.

The following fall, Adams was encouraged to hear the new principal, Andre Douyon, say that special education was a personal priority and that he, the principal, would be overseeing the department. But Adams’ optimism was short-lived and turned to skepticism after a lunch break meeting between Douyon and the special education staff during the first week of school.

"(Douyon) arrived at 1:00 for a 12:30 meeting. In the 10 minutes now available, he explained that while the previous administration may have had an understanding to hire a credentialed testing coordinator, ‘there was no line item in the budget for that position.’ We were also informed early on that our budget had been cut to $200 per teacher [from $325]. We left that meeting knowing there was a host of unfinished business. Mr. Douyon left the meeting believing we had arrived at some kind of agreement. This kind of a unilaterally imposed ‘consensus’ has become a constant with Mr. Douyon.” Adams says the previous administration’s promise to hire a testing coordinator was a significant issue—the hire would have partially mitigated the workload of the over-burdened special education staff.

While the budget cut may seem minor, it represents a potentially significant change in how school funds are disbursed. The district had recently switched to a “site-based” funding scheme that allows a principal control of a school’s discretionary funds. Previously, many funding requests, including this special education money, were routed through and approved by the district. The new plan decentralizes power from the district to school principals, and is regarded as an important and positive innovation.

Adams also says he was required to do two jobs for the pay of one—his own as a teacher, and that of the instructional aide he was supposed to have with him in the classroom. Adams says that the job of special education teacher requires an instructional aide, “it is not a luxury, it is a two-person job.”

Adams explained not having an aide essentially made the class unmanageable, requiring him to spend the majority of his time keeping the peace instead of teaching. The instructions he was given for one student was that if he was “having difficulty,” Adams was to clear the room and call the police.

“I have had fights break out in my room and I do not have eyes in the back of my head. Not only do I need the other set of eyes in the classroom, I need the other instructor to reach some of my students who are learning on an entirely different level. Having an aide would have enabled me to provide small group and one-on-one instruction to students who need individual attention,” Adams wrote in his letter to the district.

It is not disputed that his class size and the class sizes of other special education teachers exceeded the allowable number of students under state education law. Adams said that Douyon knew of the class size problems in special education and that, “The best possible interpretation would be to describe Mr. Douyon’s response to this untenable situation as ineffective, it could however be described as obstructionist … any staff proposal to address the crisis in the department is denied.”

Douyon admits that “we did have very large classes, that’s true,” but maintains that the law allows a “grace period” and that, over time, adjustments were made and class sizes were reduced, although special education teachers say it took at least three months. Douyon also concedes that there was a shortage of instructional aides, but blames the district for failing to promptly process the paperwork and conduct the interviews required to hire new aides.

Old school: 30-year veteran teacher George Prophet says you can teach an old dog new tricks, and is ready to implement the changes needed to reform Hiram Johnson.

photo by Larry Dalton

But by December 2000, Adams had seen enough and submitted a detailed, three-page letter of resignation to the district, closing with the warning, “Given my experience over the last three months to say that the morale of the Special Education department is not a concern of Mr. Douyon is the understatement of the year.” Adams was also surprised that, despite an extreme shortage of special education teachers, neither Douyon nor anyone from the district asked him to reconsider his decision.

Five-year veteran Hiram Johnson special education teacher Robin Kafouros was sorry to see Adams go. “He was a great teacher and role model,” she said. “And we need more role models.” Kafouros is resisting the urge to move on herself, citing frustrations similar to Adams, and recent friction with Douyon for questioning his proposed changes to the special education program, which she and other teachers and parents considered misguided.

Douyon wants to move special education students into general education classes, full-time, also known as “full-inclusion.” A special education teacher would also be present in the regular class. While the approach may seem reasonable in theory, Kafouros says it has been tried in the past, including at Sacramento High School, with poor results. Among other things, Kafouros says that previous studies have shown that it can lead to behavior problems, absenteeism, and acting-out or class-clown-like conduct. “To think that if you put them in (regular classes) it will somehow change their brains is ludicrous,” she explains. Kafouros also feels that complying with Douyon’s plan would require her to violate federal law.

Several parents, including J.J. Carlson agree. Carlson says the current system, where most special education students attend some regular and some special education classes to gradually bring their skills up to grade level, is working. “What’s right with this picture?” he asks in a mock sarcastic reference to the success of the current program. “It’s not going to work,” he says of Douyon’s plan. “Why put students with special needs at a disadvantage, [when] they’re already at a disadvantage.” Carlson feels that moving kids to regular classes who are on medication, have dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and other conditions, is a grave mistake. He also questions the legality of the change, citing federal law that requires the district to comply with the Individual Education Plan of each student. And the IEP’s of most special education students call for a combination of general and special education classes.

Douyon defends his plan and says that not all teachers disagree. “We have a group of special education teachers that are not resisting [this plan].” He says he is willing to sit down with anyone to discuss the new program and that, “I respect that the teachers disagree.” He also says that his full-inclusion plan is in compliance with federal law, will improve the education of special education students and readies them for the statewide high school exit exam that begins in 2004. But Carlson takes strong exception to this explanation and points out that special education students currently have better graduation rates than regular students.

Trying to clarify this debate is difficult and seeking help from the district leads to a stonewall. Dr. Kelley Ballard, administrator of special education for the district, and Linda Matsuo, a district supervisor of special education, both refuse to talk on the record about any aspect of Douyon’s plan. “It’s difficult for them, they don’t want to appear to be undercutting the other side,” explains Maria Lopez, communications director for the district.

And while the viability of the plan remains in dispute, Kafouros feels that Douyon has begun to retaliate against her simply for questioning the change. She explains that on June 11, “I was chewed out [by Douyon] in a meeting with parents. I was very upset and left the office in tears. If you don’t agree with something I’ve done, you don’t [address] it in front of parents.” She adds that she has never been treated this way before by a supervisor.

Kafouros has sought help from her union and has been advised to notify the district of her objections to the plan, and to document any perceived harassment by Douyon. Other teachers and staff are seeking advice from their respective unions, and there is expected to be a number of Hiram Johnson personnel who will resign or transfer now that the school year has ended. Douyon is unapologetic and feels that he is doing what it takes to implement needed reforms. “Our students deserve the best everyday—kids don’t have time for us to have a bad hair day—the world is too demanding and competitive. At some point you have to make a stand.” He feels that the majority of teachers are going along with the changes, and are willing to adapt.

Douyon says one of those teachers is George Prophet, a 30-year veteran of the trenches at Hiram Johnson. Prophet says he has “seen it all, from one end to the other,” and is enthusiastically supportive of Douyon’s reforms, noting that in many areas of the school they are long overdue. He says one of those areas is the special education department.

“The special education teachers do a fantastic job, but no one’s ever asked them what they’re doing, and they resent someone looking over their shoulder,” he explains. Prophet says that while many special education teachers “love working with the kids,” they don’t always follow through with the required paperwork needed to track student progress and assignment to general education classes. Ironically, he also says that Kafouros is one of the few by-the-book special education teachers who have always complied with the required documentation, and that she “works well with the kids and has some very good ideas.” He is aware that there has been friction between Douyon and Kafouros—"you hear things from other teachers"—but is puzzled as to the cause. Prophet also remembers Mike Adams as a new teacher with a lot of potential, and was sorry to see him go. He points out that Hiram Johnson has a large number of special education kids and not enough teachers. “Any time you lose a special ed teacher,” he says, “you’re in trouble.”

Prophet admits Douyon can be impatient and dictatorial. “There’s times he gets abrupt, but after a while everyone runs out of patience,” he says. Prophet speculates that Douyon’s authoritarian style may stem from his Haitian heritage. “He’s a Haitian, that’s how they act.” Nonetheless, Prophet is embracing Douyon’s reforms, and boasts that after years as the underdog, Hiram Johnson is now setting the pace for innovation among the other high schools in the district. “We’re on the cutting edge … we’re smoking their ass and I love it.”

Not surprisingly, all the educators involved in the transformation of Hiram Johnson High School profess unselfish dedication to improving education for the sake of the kids. “It’s hard to be extremely patient when the lives of kids are in the balance. These are poor minority kids and we all know it,” explains Superintendent Sweeney. But it seems logical to ask how the not clearly justifiable turmoil created by excessive staff turnover, in the midst of a teacher shortage no less, and the distraction of teachers versus administration conflicts, cannot obstruct the accomplishment of that objective. Sweeney says that resistance to reform is to be expected, but that a “critical mass” of teachers and staff will get behind the changes. But he does concede that, “We understand that change is difficult for everybody. … We’ve got to be patient, respectful and supportive as we do this.”

Associate Superintendent Owen concurs, and feels that Douyon is well suited to lead Hiram Johnson, adding, "There’s no big-daddy, authoritarian principal that’s going to last long in this district."