State delegate pushes to remove Dunbar principal

Harrison seeks vote of no-confidence in school leader

Investigation ordered

January 25, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Liz Bowie | JoAnna Daemmrich and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A state delegate is demanding the removal of Dunbar High School's new principal, an outsider who has snubbed the powerful East Baltimore politician by refusing to give her a say in how the school is run.

Democratic Del. Hattie N. Harrison has been using her connections and influence to press the city schools' chief to remove Principal Joyce Jennings immediately.

"Better to do it now," Harrison said. "There are people we can bring in who will come right in and take over. I want to make sure it remains a good school, a top school, the way it should be."

Robert Booker, the city schools' chief, has yet to make a decision, but it would be highly unusual for him to move a principal five months after she began the job.

Harrison doesn't work for the Baltimore school system, nor is she a school official. But the 71-year-old state delegate has a city job running neighborhood services out of Dunbar's first floor -- and regards the school as the product of her years of activism.

Since 1974, when she and other civic leaders succeeded in getting Dunbar rebuilt, Harrison has had a say in the selection of the school's principals.

Last summer, Booker transferred Jennings to Dunbar -- without consulting Harrison or other East Baltimore politicians who had traditionally been involved in choosing principals.

Jennings, a veteran city principal, had to win over students, teachers and parents to accomplish her mission of raising academic standards at the school. What she didn't do, however, was befriend Harrison or Democratic Del. Ruth M. Kirk, who works in the school cafeteria.

"I was under the impression she [Jennings] would be talking with me and Del. Kirk," Harrison said. "Traditionally, the principals got together with the 45th and 41st District delegates, and we worked together. This time, none of it happened."

The principal said in a recent interview that she was too nervous to comment. "I can't talk about this," Jennings said, referring questions to a schools' spokeswoman.

Jennings has offended Harrison in ways large and small -- not having her office cleaned and not allowing the homecoming queen to ride in her Cadillac, Harrison said.

Harrison responded by pushing to remove Jennings and using her leadership of the organization in charge of revitalizing East Baltimore to force a vote of no-confidence in the principal.

Booker has neither criticized nor supported Jennings, and has ordered an investigation of her record.

"I hope to have a decision within a week," Booker said last week.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, who has supported efforts to get rid of Jennings, said he believes the school system is to blame in part for the turmoil at Dunbar. McFadden described Jennings as "a nice lady -- very smart, very aggressive, but I think she is misplaced at Dunbar High School. She comes from a special-education background and that is her expertise."

The bottom line, he said, is "When Hattie Harrison is not happy, I am not happy."

Harrison has long been ensconced at Dunbar, where she operates one of Baltimore's nine neighborhood service centers, providing help for people whose electricity has been cut, and people who need medical care or food. The city pays her $45,800 a year.

Harrison, upset by the way Jennings was hired, was offended when the principal did not keep the neighborhood center clean. When she complained, she said Jennings asked: "Why don't you pay rent?"

"I told her when the school was built, we got a grant, and the office was part of the school. I said, `Our office is in your budget,' " Harrison said.

Tensions escalated when Jennings fired a number of paraprofessionals and suggested Kirk might be among those to leave, according to Harrison. Kirk has been employed at Dunbar since 1970, working seven hours a week.

Parents and students have complained about scheduling problems that existed when Jennings arrived at the school.

The principal also angered teachers, according to Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English, who described Jennings as dictatorial.

"The teachers want her removed also. She is doing some things that are detrimental to the running of the school," English said. "She is pitting teacher against teacher. She has excluded them from the decision-making process."

English said she wants teachers to meet with the chief academic officer, Betty Morgan.

Harrison demanded a meeting with Booker more than two months ago. She brought along Kirk and McFadden and Reggie Scriber, a senior city housing official -- and all of them told Booker that Jennings had to go.

"Hattie is a very thoughtful woman, and she was instrumental in having that school built there," Scriber said. "She had gotten a lot of complaints. Teachers were saying they were being treated like children.

"I can assure you," he added, "The situation we want to see is her being moved out."

Last month, as chair of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, Harrison pushed through a vote of no-confidence in Jennings.

"If anyone comes into the school that does not have the stamp of approval of the East Baltimore politicians, they are in trouble," said a coalition board member who asked not to be named.

Harrison said parents are unhappy with Jennings' leadership. But Parent-Teacher Association president Bernadette Forman said she is not aware of parent concerns.

"I do know that a lot of the parents there are pleased with her," Forman said. "I would not like to see her leave because she is trying to bring a lot of innovative ideas to the curriculum." For instance, Forman said, Jennings has tried to include more foreign languages in the curriculum and to give students better preparation for the SATs.

Forman said Dunbar's parents, teachers and alumni representatives interviewed candidates for principal last year, but the decision to hire was up to the central administration.

Sun staff researcher Dee Lyon contributed to this article.

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