MAXWELL:  A firm hand for a troubled school

1/15/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Sam Gaskins, an 11th grader at Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, followed a crowd toward the cafeteria, where many of the students ate breakfast before first period began at 7:45. Of course, hardly anyone would ever get to class on time. Breakfast was for hanging out before handing yourself over to the teachers and administrators for seven hours.

But something was different that morning last August. As the first wave of students approached the cafeteria, the words “All of you people need to get to class!” boomed along the breezeway, making Gaskins and everyone else stop. Gaskins turned. A few feet away stood the biggest, meanest-looking man he had ever seen.

He and his homies had met 6-foot-4, 310-pound John D. Kelly, Dillard’s new principal. “I want everyone on this loge to get to first period _ now,” Kelly said. In the past, Gaskins would have moved, but slowly. On that morning, though, he broke from the crowd and hurried to class. As he walked, students milled in the halls even though classes had begun.

But no more. Today, nearly six months after Kelly’s arrival, Dillard’s hallways, loges and yards are virtually free of students during class time. And Gaskins knows why. “Mr. Kelly makes you do what’s right,” he said. “He won’t let the students be in the halls. You have to attend class, and we don’t have as many people skipping the whole day. Dillard is different now.”

Founded in 1907 in a one-room frame building, Dillard remained Fort Lauderdale’s black high school until it was desegregated by a federal court order in 1970. During the heyday of the civil rights movement, when many other black schools nationwide were shut down or transformed into middle or elementary schools, Fort Lauderdale’s black community, backed by the NAACP, won a court battle to retain the facility’s high school designation.

But the school fell on hard times. After many veteran teachers were transferred to other schools, morale sank among the general staff and student body. As the economy faltered, neighborhoods around the campus disintegrated and enrollment plummeted. As crime and drugs soared in the area, Dillard earned a reputation for being a place of violence and apathy, a place run by the students.

This reputation, fair or not, lingers in the minds of many Broward County residents. Kelly, who graduated from Dillard in 1962, has returned to change that image. “When you hear constant negatives about something you feel dear to, it bothers you,” he said. “I was an assistant principal in Dade County before I came here, and I heard about Dillard’s discipline problems and inferior academics. I wanted to do something.”

Last May, then-principal Benjamin J. Williams and a group of alumni asked Kelly, 50, to become an assistant principal. When Williams retired at the end of the 1993-94 term, Kelly replaced him. His return to his alma mater had followed a circuitous route.

After graduating from Dillard, he attended all-black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee on a football scholarship. From there, he played three years as a center for the Washington Redskins before injuries ended his career; he was the first black center in the National Football League. After leaving Washington in 1967, he returned to Dillard and coached football for one season before becoming offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Southern University. Budget cuts cost him the job at Southern after several years. Then he took a job as a manager with New York Life Insurance. He was successful but unhappy. Missing the daily contact with children, he returned to the school system.

“I’ve come to one conclusion: God created me to deal with children,” he said. “Dillard was part of God’s master plan for me. So I jumped at the chance to come home and work with these kids.”

Kelly’s homecoming, though, has not been a honeymoon. From the outset, the huge number of students in the halls shocked him. “I mean, kids were walking and walking and walking and walking,” he said. “There was no sense of urgency to get to class. I saw a lot of apathy. I saw kids who had given up. I can’t accept that.”

During his first meeting with the faculty, he outlined what he calls the rifle approach. “In the rifle approach, you’ve got to aim and hit what you’re going to shoot at. You can’t set your sights too high. First, I aimed at getting the kids in class. Then I aimed at discipline. These are simple things, but my most important goals right now. We must put our teachers back in control.” He appointed a committee that developed tougher detention and tardy policies and stricter grading standards for regular students and for those in the magnet program. Magnet students, for instance, must maintain a 2.5 grade point average (out of 4) or return to their original schools.

Kelly does not believe in sending students home or expelling them. Instead, the staff uses in-school measures, including chores, such as cleaning the cafeteria’s tables and floors, and mandatory study halls, to punish and motivate students. After these policies were established, copies of them were sent to all parents and guardians.

To enforce class attendance, Kelly, the six daytime assistant principals, coaches and security staffers conducted sweeps of the campus each day, every period. During sweeps, teachers could not admit tardy students into the rooms. Now, the sweeps are strategically timed to assure the element of surprise. Armed with a radio, Kelly prowls the campus each day, rousting students off the telephones, lecturing them, driving would-be lovers out of hiding, leading sullen star athletes to their classrooms.

Kelly’s determination to get students in class and keep them there is as practical as the man himself. “You can’t learn if you aren’t in class,” he said.

Class attendance is the highest it has been in 40 years. But are the students learning their subjects? Not well enough to suit the new principal. He believes that discipline _ appropriate behavior that makes learning possible _ is still missing. Too many students continue to disrupt classes.

“Without discipline, nothing good can take place,” he said. “I don’t care how good the teacher is, if the teacher has to quit lecturing every five minutes to say “stop’ to an unruly student, she can’t do her job. If you take five minutes from classroom instruction, you’re now teaching a 55-minute period instead of a 60-minute period. If you have five or six periods a day, and you keep losing five minutes in each, in a year’s time the student might miss six weeks of instruction. How can that student compete with a kid in suburbia where full 60-minute periods are taught?”

And what do Dillard’s 2,800 students think of Kelly’s radical changes? “In the beginning, we thought he was kind of mean and hard,” Gaskins said. “But now that most of us have gotten used to Mr. Kelly, we are buckling down and studying. I think it’s cool. I really like him, and most of the other students do, too.” A few weeks ago, the student government held a school-wide program honoring Kelly.

Parents also support his tough policies. Like their children, though, most were skeptical at first, believing that Kelly was doing too much too fast. Some openly complained about the harsh punishment their children received, arguing that the new principal did not understand the 1990s generation of high schoolers. Today, however, few parents complain.

Dillard’s teachers have the most praise for Kelly. “Mr. Kelly is innovative, he’s willing to listen and he brings discipline,” said media center director Zonia Williams, who taught English from 1976 to 1988, before assuming her present job. “He’s brought in a new administration and a new way of thinking. The tenseness on campus is gone. Although he is a big man, he is kind and gentle and approachable. He has big ideas.”

Anderson Spince Jr., a Dillard graduate who has taught at his alma mater for the last 24 years, said: “For too long, teachers have had less power than the students. With the threat of lawsuits, HRS charges and everything else, teachers were always on the borderline, always afraid to discipline the students the way they should be disciplined. It’s like sitting on a time bomb trying to teach kids these days. Since Mr. Kelly came, teachers feel better about themselves and about the administration. The stress and pressure aren’t like they used to be. Of course, we can still do a better job.”

Indeed, all is not well at Dillard. Standardized test scores, for example, are still embarrassingly low, and the dropout rate, which has improved significantly, is still high. But Kelly has taken action. He asked teachers to drill and tutor seniors who were to take the exit exam in October. One result was encouraging: The students scored 5 points above the district average in communications, a first for the school. The previous year, Dillard had placed last.

But Kelly also worries about Dillard’s magnet program, consisting of performing arts and high technology. “It’s designed to pull white kids into a black community, but it has created a school within a school,” Kelly said. “The black kids, 99 percent of them, who live in the area can’t get in the magnet program. Of the approximately 700 students in the two magnets, very few are black. That breeds a lot of resentment between the races. I want to change that.”

He wants to operate the entire school as a magnet, letting students’ capabilities and willingness to work determine their academic status. “Everyone should really have a fair chance,” he said. “Right now we have a system of haves and have-nots. I don’t like it.” He attributes the school’s few cases of racial violence to the inequity the magnets create.

If he succeeds at Dillard, Kelly said, his race and gender will have a lot to do with that success. He also hired other black males, some he has known since childhood, to bring meaning to the lives of Dillard’s black male students.

“Let’s tell the truth,” he said. “The fact that I am a black male is super-important here in this environment. No matter how you look at it, socioeconomically, the black male is the individual who is being lost. With me, they see one of their own. They see me working in their community, and they know I care about them. I can be tough on them because I am a good role model. I am one of them.”

Sam Gaskins agrees that Kelly was correct in hiring strong black males.

“Mr. Kelly graduated from Dillard, and he’s returned to help us,” Gaskins said. “That tells the rest of us _ even the white students _ that everything is possible. Mr. Kelly and some of the other black men on the staff came from these same neighborhoods and made it. That means we can make it, too, if we go to class and work hard.”

Bill Maxwell, an editorial writer and columnist for the Times, attended Dillard High in 1961-62.


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