The heroic educator who swoops in and rescues students at a troubled inner-city school is a favorite Hollywood trope: Think Jim Belushi in “The Principal,” Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver,” Morgan Freeman in “Lean on Me,” etc.
This Friday’s New York Times featured a real-life story that is, as a colleague of mine pointed out, stranger than fiction.
Four years ago, Junior High School 22 in the South Bronx was an utter mess. There was anarchy in the hallways. In some classes, few students bothered to show up. The school was classified as one of New York City’s dozen most dangerous. It had gone through six principals in two years.
Then along came Shimon Waronker, a member of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect. Despite concerns that a Hasidic principal would be a mismatch for a largely black and Hispanic school, Waronker has quickly proven his doubters wrong.
Waronker, it turns out, brought an unusual background to the job — and not only because he is a Hasidic Jew. Waronker is also a native Spanish-speaker (which impressed Hispanic students) and had served as an officer in the U.S. Army. He drew heavily upon his military background in restoring order to the troubled school.
The Times reports:
He focused relentlessly on hallway patrols, labeling one rowdy passageway the “fall of Saigon.” In an effort to eliminate gang colors, he instituted a student uniform policy.
He even tried to send home the students who flouted it, a violation of city policy that drew television news cameras. In his first year, he suspended so many students that a deputy chancellor whispered in his ear, “You’d better cool it.”
The principal enlisted teachers in an effort to “take back the hallways” from students who seemed to have no fear of authority. He enlisted the students, too, by creating a democratically elected student congress.
“It’s just textbook counterinsurgency,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is you have to invite the insurgents into the government.” He added, “I wanted to have influence over the popular kids.”
Along with restoring order, Waronker has challenged students — and teachers — to aim higher. He’s launched programs in leadership and etiquette, and started a dual-language French program.
His efforts have paid dividends. The Times reports that “test scores have risen enough to earn J.H.S. 22 an A on its new school report card.”
Back in Crown Heights, Waronker told the Times, some of his Hasidic neighbors ask him why he doesn’t devote his talents to a yeshiva instead. Well, now that the Times has taken notice of Waronker’s work, some of his fellow Lubavitchers are kvelling.