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A Denver Principal's Get-Tough Plan

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Thirty-three-year-old Antwan Wilson needed a challenge. That's how the high school principal explains his recent decision to uproot his family from their Kansas home and take the helm of a troubled Denver high school. The previous principal of Montbello High, a majority minority school, resigned after a student was stabbed to death in the cafeteria last year. Montbello's students also have some of the lowest test scores in the state. Wilson hopes to turn things around by implementing a tough-love approach. NPR's Farai Chideya sat down with Mr. Wilson to talk about his unorthodox approach and some of the challenges he faces.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Give me your first impressions of the school that you took over when you first walked in the door.

Mr. ANTWAN WILSON (Principal, Montbello High School): When I first came in last year, I was amazed with all the distractions that I noticed, and by distractions I'm talking about just students walking down the hallways, a number of students not in class during class time, just all the things that would take one's focus away from learning. This year, it was different in that when I walked in and the students came, I noticed that many of them were ready to fall back into that, and that we would have to be quick in helping them understand it wouldn't be that way anymore.

CHIDEYA: You had a student stabbed to death in the school at Montbello before you arrived. What can you tell kids who've been through something like that about just basic issues like `I don't want to die at school'?

Mr. WILSON: Well, you know, it's interesting, because that was one of the first things that I wanted to focus on, has been a major theme, and that is that young people should go back home basically in the same health that they came to school in. All young people want to come to school and be safe, no matter how good or bad any other people may think they are. They all want to come to school, be safe and go home in the same health that they came, so we had to spend a lot of time talking about what that takes. And we talked a lot about not being able to have your cake and eat it too, meaning that if you want safety, there are certain things that you have to give up. You cannot hang out wherever you want to hang out. You can't have large groups of students gathering together. You're going to actually have to go to class and focus on learning while you're in school, as opposed to some of the other things that can kind of get you off that focus.

CHIDEYA: So when a student breaks the rules, what do you do?

Mr. WILSON: First of all, we are very clear about what our rules are, and we spent a lot of time--we made sure that those went home in the mail. In terms about our rules, we spent time talking about the philosophy of those rules and we're very visible. And so we help students understand that those consequences may involve things like after-school detention or lunch detention. We have a program called Zeros Aren't Permitted(ph), which means that if you do not get your work done on your own time, then we will use some of your lunch time to provide you with time so--where you're actually expected to get that work done in there. Also a program we call In-School Intervention(ph), which basically means that, you know, students engage in most behaviors because those behaviors get them out of work. And what we'll do is we'll make sure we'll have the work from your teachers, but we'll also get work that relate to reading, writing and problem solving and work on improving your skills so that you don't have to engage in the types of behaviors that distract the other people from learning.

But when young people begin to recognize that `Getting in trouble and doing things that I'm not supposed to do actually get me more work,' then they start to think twice about doing those things.

CHIDEYA: You have credited your mother with really instilling in you the power and promise of education. Not all students have champions in their homes. Tell us about your mother, but also tell us about how you deal with students whose parents may not be engaged.

Mr. WILSON: Well, what I would like to, you know, say about my mom is that my mom was not a teacher, but she thought she was. I remember being young and talking to my mom and asking her when school's over with. And she'd always say, `When you graduate college.' And certainly, it's important to have those role models at home, but it's important to latch onto role models anywhere and follow their lead. And then, as a school, we have to be about finding those people and trying to put our young people in contact with as many of those people as possible. So it doesn't really matter what you do. And we talked to our staff and adults in our building about this. Leadership is the actions you take, it's not the title you have. And so you can be the custodian, you can be the parent, volunteer, you can be the teacher, you can be the principal, but being a leader and being an important role model--a difference maker in young people's lives. That's about the action you take, not about the title you have.

CHIDEYA: So you've said your big goal, your end game, is to get as many of your students into college as you can. Is your approach of really enforcing discipline and setting out the rules enough to get those kids into college?

Mr. WILSON: No, the first thing that we did is we talked about needing to have order. The second piece of that is begin, really begin, to focus on academic skills and making sure that we're really emphasizing. And certainly, that's been a part of what we're trying to do this year with teachers is emphasizing improving students' reading, writing and math problem solving skills, focusing on inquiry, trying to get students to be more active participants in the learning as opposed to passive, and then also begin to engage in a community process to where we can go--begin to improve our school overall.

CHIDEYA: And how much stock do you put in testing as a way of understanding how well your students are doing?

Mr. WILSON: Well, I believe very much in assessment. We know what our students' ability are so we're very pleased with, you know, and have a lot of faith in what their abilities are. The problem is getting--changing a culture where testing was looked at in a negative light and trying to get them to understand that the reason why we assess is so that we know what to teach you. And it's important that we understand what you do and do not know and that it's not an `I got you, now I know you don't know this,' but it's more along the lines of trying to assess what students do know so that we know what to teach you. And then ultimately, when that becomes part of our culture, then we don't need to fear things like C-SAT assessments, state assessments, things like that because it's just another opportunity for us to show what we know.

CHIDEYA: Antwan Wilson is the principal of Montbello High School in Denver. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WILSON: You're welcome.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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