Academic journal article Education Next

New Leaders for Troubled Schools: Jacquelyn Davis Works with D.C.'S Education Bureaucracy

Academic journal article Education Next

New Leaders for Troubled Schools: Jacquelyn Davis Works with D.C.'S Education Bureaucracy

Article excerpt

In recent years Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Washington, D.C., has suffered some well-publicized traumas, including the on-campus murder of a 17-year-old and a deliberate mercury contamination by students that forced the school to close for a month. Meanwhile, barely 3 percent of students scored "proficient" in reading, and just under 10 percent did so in math. In comparison, the firing of Ballou's principal in the summer of 2005--the second sacking in as many years--seemed like a mercifully dull event.

For Jacquelyn Davis, any mention of Ballou brings back sharp memories. "Ballou is where I had my awakening," says Davis. In 1999, as a second-year law student at Georgetown University, she taught a legal course at the high school. "My students at Ballou were incredibly smart but their skills were on such a low level," she says. "Some of them were close to being illiterate." She realized that the school was broken but felt powerless to fix it. "It was painful to witness," she says.

Today Davis, 35, wields considerable influence over Ballou and, in fact, almost every public school in Washington, D.C. As the executive director of the Washington office of New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS), Davis is overseeing a rapidly expanding crop of new principals who are promising to revitalize a long-ailing system. The nonprofit NLNS has agreements to train principals in five other U.S. cities--Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Memphis, and the Oakland Bay area. With only about 80,500 students in public and charter schools, Washington has one of the smallest student populations of the NLNS program cities, and program graduates make up a sizable share--almost 20 percent after just three years--of the city's principals. NLNS alumni are principals or assistant principals in 45 of Washington's 200 public schools (see Figure 1). Within a few years, half of all D.C. schools could be in the hands of NLNS alumni.

Someone Who Can Do It All

Davis grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, where her father served as a school board member during the massive effort to desegregate that city's schools, and she was among the first white students to attend a formerly segregated elementary school. "In some ways I've always been thinking about these issues of race and class and education," she says. As an undergraduate at Brown University, she studied school reform with Ted Sizer, and not long after moving to Washington in 1993 to work for a congressman, she co-founded Hands on DC, a nonprofit that uses volunteers to make repairs in the city's notoriously dilapidated school buildings and provide college scholarships to low-income students.

None of this, she says, prepared her for the dysfunction she discovered while teaching at Ballou, which was jarring enough to sideline her career as a lawyer. Instead, she headed for public education. She and some Georgetown classmates, also Ballou veterans, launched Thurgood Marshall Academy, a law-related high school just blocks away from Ballou and one of the city's first charter high schools.

Davis became an administrator at Thurgood Marshall. She recruited the school's first principal and learned firsthand what it takes to lead an effective school. That work led to an insight that would reverberate. "You can have amazing teachers," Davis says. "But if you don't have a principal holding it all together ... the school's not going to work." The principal she helped hire was highly qualified, she recalls. "But even he wasn't perfect." She saw close-up the staggering array of skills requisite in a successful principal, from managing a multimillion-dollar budget, to being an instructional leader, to working with parents and community members. "How do you find someone who can wear all these hats?" Davis asks.

Great Schools Have Great Principals

In 2002 Davis met up with an old friend, Jonathan Schnur. They'd first met while working on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. …

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