Principal readies ultimatum for troublemakers

March 07, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

When he returns to Frederick Douglass High School for the first time in 28 years this morning, Orrester Shaw Jr. plans to tell the teachers to start naming names.

The burly, balding 45-year-old taking over as principal today wants every teacher to list at least three students -- fighters, vandals, troublemakers, hall wanderers, chronic truants, toughs who threaten teachers and terrorize other youngsters.

Then, he says, he'll find every student on every list, sit them down, try to talk some sense into them and deliver an ultimatum: Come to school to learn, stop tearing down Douglass . . . or don't bother coming back. Those who fail to shape up -- quickly -- will be transferred out of Douglass, he says.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to save that school, even if it means I have to get those rotten apples out of the barrel to stop the decay," says Mr. Shaw, a 1966 Douglass graduate.

He'll walk into a Douglass that bears little resemblance to the school he and his six brothers and sisters remember -- a place where he never saw a fight, where students called teachers "sir" and "ma'am," where excellence was the rule.

Today, gang graffiti covers desks. Fights break out with disturbing frequency.

More than a few students carry weapons. Standardized test scores rank among the lowest in the city, and four out of 10 students drop out each year, by far the highest rate in the state.

Because of its marked decline, Douglass faces possible state takeover -- one of only two schools in Maryland threatened with the extraordinary new measure aimed at schools with continually worsening attendance, dropout rates and standardized test scores.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey chose Mr. Shaw a week ago to replace Shirley T. Hill, who took over the West Baltimore school in 1991 and is being transferred to headquarters to assist the six area superintendents. Dr. Amprey pins his hopes for bringing much-needed discipline and averting state takeover on Mr. Shaw, principal at Elmer A. Henderson Elementary in East Baltimore for the past five years.

Instilling discipline

Like the superintendent, Mr. Shaw says he believes a lack of discipline, more than anything, has led to the downfall of the once-proud school.

Douglass, the only Baltimore high school blacks could attend until 1940 and one of only two until 1954, lists among its alumni many of Baltimore's most distinguished citizens. Among them: Thurgood Marshall, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice; Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., the late civil rights leader; state public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson; entertainer Cab Calloway; Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, and his predecessor, Parren J. Mitchell.

Mr. Shaw says he hopes to instill discipline first by letting the estimated 1,300 students know, in no uncertain terms, that he'll be watching them closely -- patrolling hallways, the cafeteria, popping in on classes unannounced, walking the parking lots and campus.

He knows that too many of the students never had anyone looking out for them, that too many see a world of hopelessness where dealing drugs seems the only route to what they view as success, or have parents who let them do as they please.

Taking back the schools

"People are always talking about taking back the streets, but to do that you have to take back the schools, and before you can do that, you need to take back the homes and get the parents involved in their children's education," Mr. Shaw says.

But he says he realizes many parents, themselves dropouts, find schools forbidding places.

"What we have to do is make the school inviting and take away the intimidation a lot of parents feel by inviting them all up and letting them know that what they're coming into is not going to be threatening or intimidating," he says.

He envisions having them in for parent-child breakfasts, assemblies, volunteer programs, plays and choir performances, among other things.

Mr. Shaw, a Baltimore native with a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's in educational administration and supervision from Morgan State University, has spent his entire career in elementary education in Baltimore. He held several teaching jobs and worked as an educational specialist and assistant principal before becoming principal at Henderson.

There, he dramatically improved student performance and attendance and launched several highly regarded efforts, including Success For All, an intensive reading program run by Johns Hopkins University's Robert Slavin; computerized instruction; and Sylvan Learning Center tutoring.

On Friday, his last day at Henderson, Mr. Shaw was given a surprise party by more than 500 people, including students, teachers, staff members, parents, grandparents and Eastern District police officers. They showered him with praise and song, and gave him gifts and flowers in a send-off that brought many -- including the principal -- to tears.

Elementary lessons

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