What happens to a turnaround high school when transformative principal walks away?


It wasn’t long into Damon Holmes’ tenure as new principal of Malcolm X Shabazz High School this fall that Sharon Cook, an administrator at Shabazz, knew the school and students were going to be okay under the new guy.

Cook was having a meeting with Holmes in the principal’s office when he suddenly stopped talking. In mid-sentence. Cook wondered what prompted the dramatic pause — until she glanced around and saw a student hovering outside.

Holmes had interrupted his meeting with a key staff member because one student needed his help. Cook instantly realized that in Holmes’ eyes, students come before everything else.

“That first time I thought it was a little awkward,” Cook recalls. “But after being with him, I saw he truly does care about students. It’s always the students first with him.”

Holmes, 40, took over in September from Gemar Mills, the enormously popular and successful principal who abruptly left in the midst of a remarkable and widely hailed turnaround for this long-troubled Newark institution. Mills had earned the moniker “The Turnaround Principal” for changing the culture of a school that had been so violent the media dubbed it “Baghdad.”

Mills — just 27 when he became principal — had been celebrated for his triumph in transforming Shabazz in a few short years from a virtual war zone to a school in which hope fills the halls. After the turnaround, the school was profiled in magazines, in a documentary produced by New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, and in the book “Most Likely to Succeed,’’ by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, which calls for radically overhauling U.S. high schools.

Last year, after four successful years at the helm, Mills decided to walk away, lured by an offer to become the chief education officer for a well-funded New York City-based nonprofit called The Future Project, which he says is working in about 50 schools across America — including Shabazz and a half dozen other schools in Newark — to reinvent the structure of the nation’s high schools.

The Future Project stations an employee — called a “Dream Director’’ — in each of its high schools to work directly with students. The directors are on site full time, helping students to thrive and to find a future path that inspires them. As Shabazz principal, Mills had been impressed with the project and had invited a Dream Director to work at the school.

“I saw that the Future Project could help tackle the climate and culture of the school and let me tackle academics,” Mills says, explaining what first enticed him to bring his current employer to Shabazz — and why he ultimately joined the Future Project team.

His decision immediately produced widespread panic in the halls and classrooms of Shabazz. Would the school revert to its distressed, low-achieving former self?

The departure also illuminates one of the most vexing, crucial questions in the education landscape: When a talented, transformative principal leaves, can a school sustain success?

Cook was worried that the answer to that question was no, until she saw Holmes at work and realized how much he cares about the students at Shabazz, whose student body is 89 percent African-American. Research has shown that when black students feel the faculty cares about them, they are more likely to experience academic success — one reason why Cook knew the school that had been transformed from one of the worst in the state under Mills was still in good hands.

A city’s struggles

As New Jersey’s largest city, Newark has been engaged in a decades-long struggle to lift its schools, which suffered from the blight and upheaval that sank the city in the wake of the social unrest of the 1960s. Newark schools are still far from meeting student needs, even after a state takeover of the schools 21 years ago, a rapid expansion of charter schools in the city, and the widely-chronicled $100 million investment by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Shabazz, formerly known as South Side, was once a revered Newark institution that boasted such alumni as Mayors Sharpe James (Newark) and Ed Koch (New York), Grammy Award-winning singer Cissy Houston and billionaire Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. Students voted to change the name to Malcolm X Shabazz in 1971 because they wanted an image that reflected the community.

But as Newark’s now-notorious South Ward descended into a poverty-stricken haven for crime and violence, so did the high school at its center. A 2009 report by the state of New Jersey concluded the students had taken over the building. Student enrollment was plummeting — the school now has fewer than 600 students — as parents moved their children to the charter schools popping up around the city.

Violence, gangs, chaos and failure had become so commonplace at Shabazz that the state — which now ran Newark schools — was considering shutting the school down when Mills, already a Shabazz vice principal, was elevated to principal in 2011.

At the time, only 46 percent of students were proficient in language arts and just 19 percent in math, according to Mills. But Mills — leaning heavily on the tough-love disciplinary style of the school’s charismatic new football coach, Darnell Grant — took the building back.

With the risk of being accused of playing to the stereotype that students in urban neighborhoods pay too much attention to sports to the detriment of academics, Mills and Grant decided to base their remaking of Shabazz on the football team.

“We figured they were the most influential people in the building — the largest in stature, the largest collective group,” Grant says. “The football team goes beyond neighborhoods, beyond family connections, beyond regional things. Everybody who goes here is a part of that team, no matter where he’s from. We made them all leaders. You got 50 guys there, 50 leaders who represent 50 different but similar groups. You get control of them, you get control of the school. And that was our goal. It was kinda easy because nothing at the school worked. When nothing works, you can rework everything — blow it all up and start again.”

The football players not only became models of the kind of behavior the coach and principal expected, they helped impose order. After Mills and Grant eliminated discipline problems, students were able to spend much more time focusing on academic performance.

Over the course of four years, Mills raised the percentage of students proficient in language arts to 74 percent, the highest jump in the city. In math, 37 percent now were proficient. By pushing students to think more seriously about their futures, Mills was able to increase the percentage of graduating seniors matriculating to four-year colleges or universities from 23 percent to 46 percent.

By 2014, the remarkable transformation of Shabazz had become national news. Newark City Councilman John S. James, who represents the South Ward, says the makeover of Shabazz had a much-needed uplifting effect on the surrounding community.

“To see it closed would have been a detriment to the community. My father went there,” says James, son of former Mayor Sharpe James. “Between Mr. Mills and Mr. Holmes, they have made it one of the leading institutions in our community. It will remain open and will continue the legacy of being one of our best high schools.”

The new guy is embraced

Seven months into his tenure at Shabazz, Holmes — former principal of John Adams, a large urban high school in Cleveland — seems to have won over Shabazz staff and students alike. His obvious affection for students clearly goes a long way.

With his self-assured stride, Holmes — a former college football player for Bowling Green — moves through the halls like a pied piper, attracting throngs of boys and girls who want to ask him questions, who want to report on their latest accomplishments, or who just want to engage in playful banter with him.

Holmes is more than happy to oblige. In many public high schools, the principal is a figure to avoid. At Shabazz, they run toward him, not away.

On an early spring morning, 11th grader Latifah Hinds tries to prod Holmes into assuring her that the auditorium will be available after school to hold rehearsals for a play she is directing. She also wants to make sure Holmes will attend the play, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a modern satire of a 1920’s musical. He smiles and tells her he will be there. Hinds smiles back. She leaves him alone — for now.

Coach Grant admits he was shaken when he found out Mills was leaving. But Principal Holmes quickly allayed his fears.

“With Mills, I felt that we had finally gotten to a point where it was real education happening here, real progress. And we had just won the state football championship. Now you gonna leave? What the hell are you doing?” Coach Grant says. “And we got this guy coming from Cleveland — we don’t know anything about him; we don’t know him from a can of paint. But when he came, he didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. He entrenched himself into every aspect of the school. He connected with the faculty. He connected with the custodial staff. He connected with the security. He connected with the sports teams. And he connected with the kids. He has a great, positive energy about him. It only takes a couple of minutes to understand this guy is 100 percent locked in, doing it the right way, trying to make it better.”

Grant, the football coach, reached to another sport for an analogy to explain Holmes’ personality.

“A lot of people come in with that vigor, but then they get jabbed a little bit. Like Mike Tyson said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth,’” Grant says. “But he doesn’t care what happens, whether we fail or win, he doesn’t change, he’s consistent. That’s why he was able to win the kids over so quickly, win the building over quickly, and keep the building rolling.”

Trying to ‘elevate the building’

Holmes is not content with just keeping the building rolling. He said he wants to “elevate the building.” He fully endorses the concept of “community schools,” the program announced last year by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark State District Superintendent Christopher Cerf that would, among other initiatives, reintroduce vocational careers to Shabazz and its student body and offer courses and programming that better meet student needs.

That’s what Holmes wanted to do at his high school in Cleveland, to better focus on the needs of students, but says he didn’t get enough support from the district administrators to pull it off.

“I never really thought I’d ever leave Cleveland,” says Holmes. “I bought a house in the same neighborhood where my school was. I was in Cleveland for 17 years, my whole adult life. I had taken over a school that was on the news every day, where there were fights in the hallway. It was crazy. But I was able to put in uniforms, get kids on block schedules, mediate all the problems, change my staff. Then the academic gains started coming. We improved every year.”

When Holmes looks at urban high schools in tough neighborhoods — like Adams in Cleveland and Shabazz in Newark — he sees a system in which too many students plunge through cracks. He believes the school system is too focused on pushing all students toward a college education — when some may be better served by being introduced to careers like plumbing, electrical, auto repair, cosmetology, culinary arts, or even computer coding.

Next year, the new community schools initiative will endeavor to bring classes in subjects like these to Shabazz. The program also will provide additional programs to help students and their families, such as in-school health clinics, after-school and job-training classes, and perhaps weekend and summer classes.

“Schools have to put themselves in a situation where they change what college is,” Holmes says. “We can’t sit around thinking a four-year college is for everybody. A trade school is college — and people have to stop looking down on them. Doing a two-year program at a community college, that’s college. And it’s shortsighted when you don’t plan for both. We used to do all of this; we used to have different tracks. Then we said tracking is bad. Then budgets got tight, we started competing with charters, and districts started cutting. Now we’ve ended up in a situation where we offer kids less than we had. And that’s despicable.”

Monumental challenges

Newark assistant superintendent for high schools, A. Robert Gregory, points out that Shabazz still has a long way to go before its academic performance should be considered acceptable.

“Principal Holmes has done a phenomenal job getting to know the school community,” Gregory says. “He has a tremendous amount of buy-in with his staff. I think they believe in his vision for the school. But I think the school still has a long way to go in terms of how they are changing the trajectory of lives for students and the outcomes they are producing.”

Shabazz’s results on the new state assessments were abysmal. The assessments, called the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test, were given to New Jersey students for the first time last year. Many parents in the state objected to the new test, which is longer and viewed as more difficult than the state test it replaced. Student performance on the PARCC test across the state was considered disappointing.

In Language Arts, not one 10th grader at Shabazz reached the level of “meeting expectations,” which is regarded as passing the test. And just 5.6 percent of ninth graders and 11th graders passed. In math, no students passed the Algebra II test, while only 4.5 percent passed Geometry and 7 percent passed Algebra I.

Clearly, as Gregory notes, the school’s academic challenges remain monumental.

“There are systemic problems that need to be solved,” Gregory says. “When I say systemic, I mean Shabazz inherits a lot of students who enter the school on the first and second grade reading levels. Part of what we’re trying to do in Newark is developing a more comprehensive way to improve those feeder schools so those kids when they enter high school are more prepared than what Shabazz normally inherits.”

A perusal of the top ten GPAs for each grade at Shabazz — listed on the school website with student names — illustrates Gregory’s point. A total of just four students at the school in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades have GPAs over 3.9. In the senior class, the 10th highest GPA is 3.19.

At more competitive public high schools with dozens of Advanced Placement classes, there would likely be dozens of students with GPAs over 3.9 — and a 3.19 GPA would be considered mediocre.

So while the climate of Shabazz has improved impressively, Newark officials know it’s likely that many Shabazz graduates will struggle to compete with their peers from other schools in college.

The failure of many Shabazz students to succeed after graduation is one reason why Mills found it painful to walk away from the students at Shabazz, though he believes he can now impact students on a much larger scale. But he’s pleased to see that his successor is as able to connect with students as he was.

“Me and Holmes talk frequently,” Mills said. “I think he has the right heart, the right demeanor and the charisma to get the staff moving in the right direction for what it is he wants to accomplish. It’s a difficult space for him because even though he’s a great guy, he’s still needing to say to people who were part of my team, ‘Well I think there’s a better way to do that’ and then convince them there is a better way. And that’s not easy.”

Mills says when he walked back into Shabazz recently, a female student ran up to give him a big hug. Just then, she saw Principal Holmes walking toward them.

“She said to Holmes, ‘You’re my favorite principal, but I knew him first so he’s my favorite principal too,’” Mills recalls.

When he first learned of the opening at Shabazz, Holmes knew that if he got the job he would once again be stepping into a high school that, like the Cleveland school he left behind, was a formerly dreadful place, now transformed and poised for the next level of success. It was a challenge he was ready to take on — and he had never even been to New Jersey.

“I came here from the Midwest to the East Coast, almost on the other side of the continent, but I found that the kids were the same,” he says.

Principal Holmes leans forward in his chair.

“If the kids know you care, they will do anything for you.”