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Saturday, February 09, 2008

"Lean on Me" - circa 2008?

This story likely warmed the hearts of NY Times readers:
Junior High School 22, in the South Bronx, had run through six principals in just over two years when Shimon Waronker was named the seventh.

On his first visit, in October 2004, he found a police officer arresting a student and calling for backup to handle the swelling crowd. Students roamed the hallways with abandon; in one class of 30, only 5 students had bothered to show up. “It was chaos,” Mr. Waronker recalled. “I was like, this can’t be real.”

Teachers, parents and students at the school, which is mostly Hispanic and black, were equally taken aback by the sight of their new leader: A member of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism with a beard, a black hat and a velvet yarmulke.

“The talk was, ‘You’re not going to believe who’s running the show,’ ” said Lisa DeBonis, now an assistant principal.

At a time when the Bloomberg administration has put principals at the center of its efforts to overhaul schools, making the search for great school leaders more pressing than ever, the tale of Mr. Waronker shows that sometimes, the most unlikely of candidates can produce surprising results.

Despite warnings from some in the school system that Mr. Waronker was a cultural mismatch for a predominantly minority school, he has outlasted his predecessors, and test scores have risen enough to earn J.H.S. 22 an A on its new school report card. The school, once on the city’s list of the 12 most dangerous, has since been removed.
So, apparently against all expectations, an identifiably Chassidic principal is able to turn around a failing school district - despite what appears to have been the skepticism of so many:
Mr. Waronker, 39, a former public school teacher, was in the first graduating class of the New York City Leadership Academy, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg created in 2003 to groom promising principal candidates. Considered one of the stars, he was among the last to get a job, as school officials deemed him “not a fit” in a city where the tensions between blacks and Hasidic Jews that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991 are not forgotten.

“They just said he may be terrific, but not the right person for that school,” Chancellor Klein said.
No matter how benignly expressed, I feel that the opinion that Mr. Waronker was not fit for a job due to his religious views is nothing short of veiled discrimination. The excuse that it was simply a realistic view of the situation is obviously belied by the success Waronker has seen at his post.

Even more heart-warming than the soft-peddled discrimination of school officials is the wonderful spirit of tolerance in which Mr. Waronker was accepted by some of the school's parent body:
Some parents at J.H.S. 22, also called Jordan L. Mott, were suspicious, viewing Mr. Waronker as too much an outsider. In fact, one parent, Angie Vazquez, 37, acknowledged that her upbringing had led her to wonder: “Wow, we’re going to have a Jewish person, what’s going to happen? Are the kids going to have to pay for lunch?”
Um, is this what passes as hard-hitting journalism these days? A quote that shows that there are people who feel perfectly comfortable being quoted, by name, as believing that old canard about Jews and money - while the paper asserts that such bigotry is nothing more than "suspicion" based on the woman's "upbringing"? Is there any way, shape or form that had this comment been made by an Orthodox Jew, spewing racist or discriminatory stereotypes about another minority group, that it would have been buried in the middle of the story as a perfectly reasonable "suspicion" instead of actually being the story? Perhaps some of that extreme political correctness that seems to be going around could be applied across the board? Maybe?

Either way, these two minor quibbles should not take away from the spirit of acceptance and harmony in which this story should be read. Regardless of the low expectations that appear to have been shared by so many regarding both Mr. Waronker and the students of JHS 22, they seem to have together defied the conventional wisdom in their district and achieved, in a scene out of some 2008 version of Lean on Me - starring Matisyahu instead of Morgan Freeman as the embattled but ultimately successful principal - real progress.

I wish both students and principal more of the same continued success in the future.

47 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wah, wah, wah. The New York Times prints that someone thinks Jews are cheap and Jews get all hot under the collar. Guess what? There's truth behind every stereotype. Both the one that Jews are cheap and that also that Jews are whiners. But I guess I didn't need to say that after this post.

I don't see a story being written like this about our school district. Not because we didn't have the same low expectations for OUR Orthodox school officials but because we were right about them. Next stop on the SD15 train: Paying for school lunch.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If only this was a real born and bred chasid, then it would be an interesting story. Fine, he's the Matisyahu of the NYC BOE.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He sounds like a pretty good principal. I like the line at the end when he's asked why he doesn't work in a Jewish school. He probably wanted to say "because I don't want to be beholden to some rich-but-stupid board of trustees". He was just too diplomatic to say that. Go Shimon!

9:46 PM  
Anonymous stillwonderin' said...

Matisyahu isn;t lubavitch (anymore) and there is a bok from the mid-80s called 'Switchblades and skullcaps' by Dr. Laz (Lazerson), who is lubavitch, with a plot line that goes pretty much along the lines of this NYT article .... only much better written.

1:45 AM  
Blogger Abbi said...

I read the article also but i had to agree with some of the criticism from a teacher, who quipped that the school could do with more math books and maybe a bit less razzle dazzle "leadership" activities.

You can have both. But it's questionable to put so much into extras when you're still struggling with the basics.

2:05 AM  
Anonymous J.J. said...

MomOf4-

Although you don't blog much anymore, you don't want people to start getting all upset about another blog that's plagerizing.

Quote your source (not just for the article- for the critique) and we'll forget this happened...

8:21 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...

".J. said...

MomOf4-

Although you don't blog much anymore, you don't want people to start getting all upset about another blog that's plagerizing.

Quote your source (not just for the article- for the critique) and we'll forget this happened..."

JJ: Sorry you feel that way. Feel free to accuse away, and please get specific. Being as this came from nowhere but my own brain and a Shabbos-table discussion with a friend, I know I didn't get it from anywhere and feel no need to make some sort of deal with you about "forgetting this happened". Really. I've never, in my blogging career been stingy with linking those who inspired me or with hattips, and I will continue not to be.

8:37 AM  
Blogger MDmom said...

or, you could look at the quote you felt as anti-semitic in a positive way -- that people who previously had no personal exposure to orthodox jews and bought into the negative sterotypes (are there any that aren't?) are now finding that those stereotypes are wrong and unfounded and are thus pleasantly surprised.

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In too many public school districts, including mine (Dallas), it's very difficult to be a Jewish teacher (even a Reform one!), let alone a Jewish administrator. Stereotypes are everywhere--and when you try to combat them you run into another one--the pushy Jew. Congratulations to Mr. Waronker.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

abbi:
what Waronker has done in PS22 is absolutely stunning. There will always be disgruntled teachers resistant to change but I have friends who work there and view him as the kids' savior. He isw a visionary.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Heh. Didn't read the post before linking to the article... but partly agree with the commenter a few above this about the quote. At first I read it the same way (and I *do* think that's a problem, that that was the person's steroetyped thought), but I do think the person was noting their happiness that the stereotype was false.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous CE said...

This totally reminds me of that great book, 'Skullcaps 'n' switchblades' about the lubavitch teacher who completely turns around a class of inner-city special ed kids in Detroit. Good for him!

2:21 PM  
OpenID ilanadavita said...

Thank you for the story and the link. I might use it in a class discussion about discrimination and stereotypes.

3:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really does not matter who runs the school. What is important is support from the administration and the funds to help restructure. It seems Mayor Bloomberg has achieved this delicate balance. It is a pleasure to read about schools that care about the health and safe being of their children. It is nice to see somone in charge who actually cares about its districts children all them.

10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nice if you would take a hint from the other web site and print Dr. Mansdorf's letter about raising money.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful KIDDUSH HASHEM

11:20 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

I personally know another Orthodox Jew who as principal turned around a different High School in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx. But he is modern orthodox so it isn't a big news event.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Orthomom - love your blog. Any thoughts of returning to more frequent blogging - like once a week?

FanClub

10:05 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

A couple of years ago, the Jerusalem Post magazine printed the results of a survey they'd done about Jerusalem (ie "best restaurant," "best view," that sort of thing). Under the category "What you like least about Jerusalem," one of the top answers was "too many chareidim" and under "What you'd like to change about Jerusalem" a top answer was something like "get rid of the chareidim."

A friend said "In America, if there was a survey that showed that so many people were saying the worst thing about their city was that there were too many religious Jews, or too many blacks, or whatever, there would be a sidebar or an article examining that. They wouldn't just let it stand."

Obviously, she was wrong!

2:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But if we don't allow teachers to gather students together and have a prayer (however inclusive) is it right for this principal to have the teachers say a prayer, as the article describes?

6:27 PM  
Anonymous anonymous mom said...

Do you remember the song: "I Need A Hero" sung by Bonnie Tyler in the '80's? "Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods" I feel that way about Jewish Education these days. Where are all the innovators? I'll tell you one thing, if they've gone into the public schools, then lucky them. They need the heroes too.

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