Power to the Principal

At Madison High, Principal Warner Ervin's word is law. Teachers say that's the problem.

Warner Ervin, the principal of Madison High School, was patrolling the halls when he spotted a stray student. Three years before, the burly Ervin had taken over Madison with a mandate to bring the school under control -- and one aspect of that control was to stop students from roaming the halls when they ought to be in class. By now, in October 1995, the problem had been largely solved, but Ervin wasn't about to let a potential violator slide. He demanded to see the girl's hall permit.

But instead of the official, school-approved form, she produced a handwritten note that said "To Bathroom, PERMIT," and bore the signature of her yearbook teacher.

The makeshift permit wasn't good enough. Ervin escorted the student back to her classroom, where he lectured her teacher, Clarence Donnelly, on the importance of not allowing students to wander the halls. Donnelly explained that he'd already used the two hall passes he'd been rationed for that day, and that this had seemed an emergency. The girl, Donnelly says, explained to Ervin that her menstrual period had started, and blood was beginning to show on her clothes. According to Donnelly, Ervin asked whether the girl had a note from her doctor.

But the incident wasn't over -- at least, not for Donnelly, a first-year teacher still on probation. Ervin filed a report of Donnelly's failure to issue an official permit, not mentioning any extenuating circumstances. (Ervin later claimed that he didn't know about the girl's emergency.) Eventually that report became one of the justifications used to fire Donnelly.

Other incidents in the file seem equally trivial. For instance, Donnelly had allowed a student to wear a "skort," violating the school's policy against shorts, no matter how skirtlike in appearance. The teacher had turned in his final grades two hours late; though HISD officially allows a two-day grace period, the much smaller infraction still rankled Ervin. Besides that, Ervin wrote, Donnelly kept his lesson plans in the wrong place, and made calls on the phone in his classroom.

Most damning, Ervin now says, Donnelly was "failing to improve" -- though when he recommended Donnelly for termination, Ervin had yet to formally assess the teacher. By any standard, Donnelly would have had a tough time succeeding with the cards he'd been dealt: First, he never received supplies for the yearbook classes he was teaching; then, three months after school began, he was informed that Madison would not produce a yearbook that year. After a semester of improvising, he changed his yearbook classes to journalism, but then didn't receive up-to-date textbooks until April. "Basically," he says, "I got the impression I was in a holding pattern just to keep these kids in the room."

How you view Donnelly's firing depends largely on how you view Ervin -- and on how you view the role of a high school principal. Ervin and his supporters see the principal as an almost omnipotent ruler over his domain; if he wants a teacher or student out, then so be it. Over the last several years, that's become the more-or-less official view of the Houston Independent School District -- and in the eyes of HISD, Ervin is very, very good at his job. In fact, says Deputy Superintendent Faye Bryant, "He's one of the finest principals we have."

Ervin's opponents, of course, would beg to differ. According to the Houston Federation of Teachers, Ervin has been the target of more union grievances than any other principal in the district. For this story, more than a dozen parents and current and former employees complained to the Press, saying that Ervin is petty, dishonest and mean-spirited, that he harasses employees and students, and -- worst of all -- that no one does anything to stop him.

By almost all accounts, Madison was in serious trouble before Ervin took over. At the southside high school, it sometimes seemed as if the kids were the ones in charge; one teacher recalls that it often appeared as though more students were in the halls than in class. "[The school] didn't have anything to be proud of," says Iris Perkins, a former PTA president. "Madison had a very bad image and a very bad reputation. Children would walk out as soon as attendance was taken." Each morning, she says, buses stopped at Madison to pick up neighborhood kids who'd transferred to other schools.

In 1992, HISD gave Ervin a mission: Reform Madison.
The principal says he adopted a two-pronged strategy: First, get the kids in the classrooms; second, teach the kids. He assigned teachers to morning and afternoon patrol duties and directed them to stand at their doors while children were changing classes. As a security measure, he locked the school's bathrooms during class. He demanded that students follow a dress code, and imposed a rule that shirttails -- which can sometimes conceal weapons -- be tucked in. For the same reason, he imposed a "no-backpack" rule. One student remembers that he had a sixth sense about kids with mischief on their minds; if they were heading the wrong way, he'd suddenly appear and stop them.

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