Daniel Hudson had a feeling he might be in for a rocky time at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School the first time he entered his office.
When he was hired as Ballou’s principal in mid-August 2004, he was told by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials that class schedules had already been completed and that he didn’t need to be at the school right away. He wasn’t even authorized to go inside the school because his criminal-background check hadn’t been completed. But he showed up anyway 10 days before classes started and looked at a computer printout of the master schedule. Work on it had barely begun. The class schedules didn’t exist; they couldn’t without a master schedule, the organizational chart that lists all the courses offered for the year, who’s teaching each of them, how many students are in every class, and the course requirements for each student.
“I should have walked out of the building,” says Hudson.
Schedules are the backbone of any school. Without them, everything falls apart. Students and teachers don’t know where they’re supposed to go, so kids are usually told to go sit in the gymnasium, the cafeteria, or the auditorium. (The previous year, some Ballou students had gone without schedules until as late as November; they stayed in the cafeteria.) Some schools show movies to keep students occupied—anything but send them back home. That is almost never done—no need to let the higher-ups downtown know that there’s a problem.
Hudson quickly called several school counselors and had them cut short their summer vacations to help him work on the schedules. They had to enter into the computer the names of all the students and teachers, the courses each student needed to take, and the subjects each teacher taught. Once the computer produced the master schedule, they entered each student’s course requests to create individual class schedules. Because of scheduling conflicts, the computer couldn’t figure out almost half of them. Those had to be done by hand. That’s what took the most time, Hudson says. He put in 12- and 15-hour days, including weekends, to get them all done.
The schedules weren’t the only unexpected thing he had to deal with before school started. New handbooks for students and teachers still needed to be compiled. He also started creating guidelines for detentions, until he found out a week later that DCPS had done away with detentions. None of the administrative staff working with him on the guidelines had mentioned that fact.
Two days before classes began, the D.C. fire marshal condemned the school’s second floor as unsafe; doors to six unused classrooms were not properly sealed, so no one was to be allowed up there. (The classrooms had been gutted for remodeling several years ago, but no other work was ever done on them.) The assistant principal in charge of facilities left school that day without bothering to let Hudson know about the condemnation, he says. The evening janitor was the one who informed him.
The principal immediately called the DCPS facilities department to send workers to replace the classrooms’ doors and seal them to keep dust out of the hallway. He stayed ’til midnight to make sure the work got done. His three assistant principals put the new handbooks together, taking what they could from previous handbooks and adding updated information. When students arrived at Ballou the first day, the handbooks were ready, the doors on the second floor had been replaced, and they all got class schedules—even if 10 percent to 15 percent listed the wrong classes, Hudson says. Counselors spent the first week fixing faulty schedules.
It could have been worse. On the second day of school, Hudson turned on the local evening news and saw that his boss had been fired the previous day. His immediate supervisor, Juan Baughn, the assistant superintendent for secondary schools, was terminated because students at Eastern High School had no class schedules when they arrived that morning and were sent home. Eastern’s principal and an employee of the DCPS information-technology department were also fired.
“I felt that he got a raw deal,” Hudson says of his supervisor. “I felt that the principal…was not honest with him. I felt that he was betrayed.”
In 2003 and 2004, Ballou High School had the worst year a high school could have. A mercury spill shut down the entire building for a month. One of its star football players was gunned down in a hallway in February. Later in the year, Ballou was hit with media reports of financial impropriety and drug dealing inside the school. And a former school employee (who, according to a Washington Post article, had AIDS) was convicted of repeatedly sexually assaulting a student over a two-year period. Capping it off, the school’s popular principal, Art Bridges, was removed from his post in the spring without an explanation from DCPS. The series of problems earned the school its unofficial title as the most troubled school in a city full of troubled schools.
But Ballou has long been known as a tough place. Some teachers were afraid to work there as far back as a decade ago. The school serves one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Eighty-nine percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. According to federal standards, less than 10 percent of Ballou students could read at a proficient level in 2004, and less than 20 percent were able to do math proficiently. Over the years, a number of Ballou students have been killed outside of school, victims of urban violence. The school’s highly rated marching band and winning track team are among its few sources of pride.
At 58, Hudson still has the burly build of the college football player he once was. He comes across as a highly competent administrator. Although clearly people-oriented, he has little patience for those who don’t want to follow the rules. And he’s not afraid to say what he thinks. In other words, he seems like the sort of person who could turn Ballou around.
Before arriving there, he’d spent 33 years as a teacher, counselor, and administrator at schools across the country. He applied for the job because he wanted to move to D.C., where his girlfriend lived. The divorced father of two wanted to finally be with her after two years of dating long-distance. Hudson figured Ballou couldn’t be that different from the places he’d been before. The $116,000 yearly salary didn’t hurt, either. That was more than he made at his previous job, as a high-school principal in rural Pennsylvania.
But it quickly became apparent that Ballou was nothing like the other schools Hudson had worked at, not even the inner-city school in Richmond, Va., at which he’d spent a decade. He had a Ballou parent arrested the first week of the school year; she’d thrown a pen at him that nearly took out his eye, he says. One parent once punched another parent in the school security office. And many parents, in defiance of school rules, told him that it was OK for their daughters to wear see-through clothing to school. The majority of Ballou parents are single mothers, and many dropped out of school. Some are still only in their 20s.
When students returned to school last fall, they were still grumbling about Bridges’ dismissal. Bridges was a fixture in Ballou’s halls and made sure to greet students by name. He kept a jar of candy on the desk in his office for students and handed out bus tokens to kids who didn’t have money to get home. (Bridges declined to comment on his strategy of school governance.)
Hudson had a different philosophy for running a school. He kept out of sight, working his 12- to 15-hour days mostly in his office, dealing with parents, disciplining students and teachers, and doing the mounds of paperwork that DCPS required. Students noticed: “I never even seen him out of his office unless it was an assembly or something special going on or a fight or something,” says Tinina Hamilton, 17, who graduated in June. “He was never around.”
He also didn’t give handouts. “Students told me, ‘You don’t give me anything like Dr. Bridges did. So you don’t like me,’” says Hudson. “Kids would ask me about tokens all the time.…They equate liking with giving.”
Hudson found himself fighting a lonely battle at Ballou. Most everyone—the administrative staff, teachers, students, and those parents who bothered to voice an opinion—opposed him. His straight-talking, no-nonsense, by-the-book style upset a lot of people. They weren’t used to that in a principal. Bridges had been everyone’s buddy. But the new principal thought he could actually tell people what to do. For a lot of them, he was the problem.
“Everybody…said the school should improve.…Then when Hudson came to make the change, they didn’t want it. They wanted the status quo,” says Sandra Seegars, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Southeast, whose godson lives with her and attends Ballou. “Ninety-eight percent of the people were working against him.”
Hudson was continually surprised by how out of control things were at Ballou. Shortly after school started, he opened up a locked storage closet and discovered that all the school’s computers had been stolen over the summer. Somehow, every time he had the custodians lock the basement storage rooms where kids went to smoke marijuana, they would be reopened, even when he had the lock changed. Several students were caught on videotape picking lockers open and stealing expensive jackets. Twice students were found with crack cocaine in school.
The school also had a longstanding problem with kids hanging out in the halls when they should be in class. Hudson says two of the assistant principals contributed to the problem by writing passes for anyone who asked. Kids would sit in the stairwells talking and smoking or playing cards. “That’s how students do it at Ballou,” says former student Hamilton. “Come to school and don’t go to one class the whole day. In the hallways all day, walking around, talking, interrupting all the rest of the classes…Just walk in…to talk to your friends.”
The chaos only multiplied between classes. Though Hudson says most Ballou students behaved themselves, the 15 or 20 percent who didn’t wreaked havoc in the halls. Kids constantly beefed with each other; fights were common. Some boys fought the security guards. And the girls got into more fights than the boys. Other students would stop and watch whatever conflict was going on rather than go to their next class. One time, when Hudson and a security guard tried to stop a fight between two girls, the students who were watching attacked the men, because they wanted it to continue. The guards didn’t always do their job, either. Two were removed for allowing kids who didn’t belong in the building to enter so they could go beat up some students, says Hudson.
The second student assembly of the year, about a month into the school year, was aimed at addressing those issues. Separate assemblies were held for boys and girls on the theory that if the girls started getting to class on time, the boys would follow. But things didn’t go as planned.
One of four D.C. police officers stationed at Ballou full-time led the girls’ assembly, which took place in the gym. He asked for suggestions on how students could get along better. Some girls stood up and offered ideas. But no one heard what they said because the other students were screaming and cursing so loudly, says Hudson. “Girls who had dresses on, their legs wide open,” he says, “and carrying on as if this was a comedy.”
The officer continued conducting the exchange, but the mayhem persisted. After about 15 minutes the principal finally interrupted and took the mike to get the students to quiet down. When they didn’t, he admonished them about their behavior. “I said, ‘You know guys, as a man and…a father, I’m really concerned about the fact that I can look to my left and to my right and find ladies with their legs so wide open I can probably tell [whose underwear] is dirty and [whose] is clean. Act like a lady. Act like a young woman,’” he says. “The point I was trying to make was that your behavior in terms of your legs and your mannerisms is not appropriate.”
But many girls didn’t take it that way. “They were like, ‘Why are you looking under our skirts?’” says one student who was at the assembly. “All the girls was mad.…They didn’t think it was his place…to tell a young lady that.” She says she saw nothing wrong with his remarks.
Shortly after the assembly took place, Clifford Janey, the new school superintendent, made his first visit to Ballou. He came to inspect the building and determine what needed to be fixed, but he also addressed the students. Several girls cornered the superintendent as he left the stage and complained to him about what Hudson had said at the assembly. Hudson got only enough time with Janey to ask about arranging a meeting. “‘We can make that arrangement,’” he recalls the superintendent telling him. But when Hudson followed up later with his supervisor, nothing came of it. Hudson was still hopeful he’d eventually get to talk to Janey.
A number of students also complained about the assembly comments to William Lockridge, who represents Ballou’s district on the D.C. Board of Education. “[They told him], ‘Well, he’s saying I got dirty underwear.’ Mr. Lockridge shared that with me,” says Hudson. After hearing the principal explain what his exact words had been, Lockridge continued to scold him, according to Hudson. “I said, ‘I have…probably more respect for these children than you do,’” says Hudson. “‘You…haven’t spoken up [about] how kids act.…You stay back and look at how they cuss and curse.’”
Hudson says his subsequent phone conversations with Lockridge were even more heated. Hudson says their relationship soured in November, when Lockridge complained that the principal never called to tell him what went on at the school. Hudson said he didn’t have time to call him. “He wants someone to kiss his butt…and I don’t do that,” Hudson says. “I told him he was arrogant. He told me, ‘No, you’re arrogant.’ [Then he] called me a motherfucker.” Later, Hudson says, Lockridge told him he was going to talk to the superintendent and get him fired.
Lockridge denies calling the principal a motherfucker and says he never tried to tell Hudson what to do. “Whatever he said about me, 99 percent of it is not true.…I didn’t have a strained relationship with him, not at all,” he says. “I don’t know what Mr. Hudson’s issue was with William Lockridge, but I had none with him.”
Nor, Lockridge says, did he have anything to do with Hudson’s subsequently losing his job; noting that about one-third of DCPS principals were replaced at the end of the school year for one reason or another. (Out of 167 schools, 44 principals were replaced; six were dismissed, six resigned, 13 retired, and the rest either were promoted or took leaves of absence.)
Lockridge says he never complained to anyone about Hudson but says that he “probably wasn’t the best fit” for Ballou. “I believe that he had good intentions,” says Lockridge. “Sometimes people have good intentions but their approach is not the best.”
Before Hudson lost the students, he had already lost the teachers. A rumor had gone around among Ballou faculty that Hudson had been lying when he told them at one of their first staff meetings that he’d put together the class schedules at the last minute. They didn’t believe anyone could finish them that quickly, says one teacher, who asked not to be named, citing DCPS regulations forbidding school employees from speaking to reporters without permission. The teacher hadn’t attended the meeting but had heard about it from nearly everyone in the building.
“People got offended,” the teacher says.
A month or two after the girls’ assembly, the principal spoke one Sunday at a Catholic church down the street from Ballou, one of a dozen or so churches he visited to introduce himself to the community. He gave a two- or three-minute speech encouraging parents to become active in the school.
That Monday, a teachers’-union representative came to Hudson’s office to complain that he had denigrated Ballou’s teachers in his speech. Hudson told the union rep that that wasn’t the case. His only reference to teachers, he says, was that “I expect teachers would be respectful of their child. If you have an issue with myself or…with teachers not doing…their jobs…then let me know and I will respond accordingly.” The union representative declined to be interviewed.
Hudson calls Ballou a dumping ground for teachers whom other schools want to get rid of; more than half of the instructors, he says, were transferred from other schools. (The anonymous teacher says it’s possible that many of Ballou’s instructors were transferred but attributes the phenomenon to an excess of teachers at other schools.) He encountered resistance from most of them from the very beginning, he says. Whenever he mentioned the DCPS policy about something, they’d tell him that they’d never done things that way at Ballou. (Hudson adds that 20 to 35 of Ballou’s 95 teachers are excellent.)
“In certain people’s minds, he had unreasonable standards and demands such as students and teachers should come to school on time,” says Phil Pannell, treasurer of Ballou’s Parent Teacher Student Association. “Some people’s feathers were ruffled by the fact that he would want something like that.”
Hudson had done his Ph.D. dissertation on the impact of teacher absenteeism on student performance. He’d found that excessive absences hurt student performance; students tend to mimic their teachers’ behavior. At Ballou, some teachers justified being late to class because students were late. They also used sick days as personal days; no one had ever worried about the distinction. Ten to 15 teachers were absent every day, says Hudson. Some days, as many as 25 teachers didn’t show up. With few substitute teachers willing to come to the school, students would spend whole class periods sitting in the cafeteria or the gym. Even when the teachers were at school, most only taught for half of a class period, not the full 80 minutes, he says.
A few teachers cursed at students or called them names. One called a girl “fatass.” The same teacher even called up the mother of one special-education student’s boyfriend to tell her that her son shouldn’t be dating the girl because she was “retarded.”
The principal’s adherence to the rules was even more of a problem for Ballou’s teachers and staff than it was for its students. Seegars asked one school employee how he liked Hudson. “He said, ‘Oh, he don’t need to be over here. He need to go to a white school,’” says Seegars. “I said, ‘Why? What is he doing?’ ‘He’s trying to go by the book.’ I said, ‘Oh, Lord! We can’t have that!’” (Hudson, like 99 percent of the student body at Ballou, is African-American.)
Hudson tried to get teachers to follow the proper procedures for fundraising. One teacher didn’t even bother giving receipts when people gave her donations. But their biggest complaint, says the anonymous instructor, was simply the way that he spoke to them: “It was always negative,” he says, though he’s hard-pressed to give examples. The principal heard that complaint from teachers himself, but Hudson says they accused him of being negative when actually they just didn’t like what he said. When most of the teachers forgot to bring their copies of a new curriculum to a workshop, he asked what their comment would be if their students had come to class unprepared. “One teacher said, ‘You’re being negative,’” says Hudson. “I said, ‘How in the world could that be negative?’”
Some teachers began referring to him behind his back as Joe Clark, after the tyrannical principal played by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 movie Lean on Me, who shakes things up at a failing inner-city school in New Jersey and turns it around. But it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
And they didn’t hide their dislike for the principal from students. “We would have…open discussion in class. [Kids] always would be talking about the incident in the assembly. They all used to call him a pervert,” says Hamilton. “The teachers would even say they don’t like him.”
Hudson couldn’t even trust his top lieutenants. His main nemesis at Ballou was a particularly insubordinate assistant principal. His radio—all senior administrators are required to wear one—would often inexplicably be turned off. He and Hudson constantly battled, and, according to Hudson, the assistant principal once told one of the police officers at school that he wanted to tell some kids to beat the principal up. But the superintendent never approved Hudson’s request to transfer him. The assistant principal did not respond to a request for an interview.
With limited cooperation from his staff, Hudson struggled to control the chaos in Ballou’s halls. He often joined the three assistant principals in charge of monitoring the halls and the security guards for “hall sweeps.” An announcement would be made over the school intercom for teachers to lock their classroom doors, and then all the kids left in the halls would be rounded up in the cafeteria and sent home. But during the sweeps, a few teachers sometimes unlocked their doors and hid students in their classrooms. Teachers were also supposed to help monitor the halls between classes, but many were too frightened by the students to leave their classrooms, Hudson says. They had reason to be.
In late February, Hudson told one student who was wandering the halls to get to class, only to see the boy still in the halls 10 minutes later. So Hudson told him to go home. As they exited the school’s main entrance together, the boy argued with the principal and then punched him in the face. Hudson grabbed the boy in a bear hug to restrain him, and they fell to the ground together. Security guards arrived and apprehended the boy, who was later arrested by police. Another student had already been arrested in December for trying to hit Hudson.
The rumor that went around the school about the fight differed from what Hudson reports. (His account is corroborated by Seegars, who witnessed the incident.) “The student didn’t like the way [Hudson] addressed him,” says the anonymous teacher. “He called the student names or…talked to him in a nonprofessional manner.…That’s what I heard. He basically just talked to the student any old way. And the student talked back to him.…The next thing you know, they were throwing punches at each other.”
After the fight, the stress finally got to Hudson. His blood pressure soared to a dangerously high 240 over 120. He took a week off in the beginning of March to get it back down. He seriously thought about quitting while he was away. But the following Monday, he was back at his desk.
Before the school year ended, Ballou was struck by another tragedy. A 16-year-old Ballou student, Lavelle Jones, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he was leaving a nightclub early one Sunday morning in April. Hudson says he was a nice kid but that he couldn’t be induced to go to class. His mother came to the principal’s office the day after the murder and blamed Hudson, along with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the city, for her son’s death, he says. He refused to accept any responsibility, telling her that she was the one who had allowed her son to be out partying past 2 a.m. He later heard that some people at DCPS headquarters didn’t appreciate his candor.
Hudson tried to make one last change at Ballou, at the graduation ceremony. In the past, the top 10 students sat on the stage with the principal and local dignitaries, while the rest of the students sat in the audience below. Those students would exit the stage and join their classmates in the audience, then walk back up to the stage to receive their diplomas along with everyone else. Hudson thought it made more sense to give the top students special recognition when they received their diplomas but have them sit in the audience, because they weren’t speaking. The parents of the top students complained to the central office; at graduation, the students sat onstage alongside Hudson, Lockridge, and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr.
Janey’s initial visit to Ballou wasn’t the first time that Hudson had asked him for a meeting, and it wasn’t the last. He kept requesting to meet with the superintendent throughout the year. They’d never discussed the situation at Ballou, even though it is the second-largest school in the system, let alone the school with the worst reputation. Hudson never did get a meeting despite his repeated requests, a number of which he made in person at the monthly principals’ meetings that Janey held. The superintendent would tell Hudson to call one of his deputies to set something up. When he called, says Hudson, the deputies would say they’d get back to him, but they never did.
Nor did Janey have time to talk to Hudson any of the three times that he visited Ballou, even when he spent the entire day there as “guest principal.”
Janey, it turns out, did have time that day for an impromptu meeting with the vice president of Ballou’s Parent Teacher Student Association, Thomas Byrd. “I just barged in basically and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you.’ And he said, ‘OK,’” says Byrd, a Ballou alum who has no children. He spoke one-on-one with the superintendent for about 30 minutes that day. It seems strange that Hudson never had a chance to meet with Janey, he says.
By January, Hudson realized that he was never going to get to talk to the superintendent, but he continued putting in requests. No one at the central office had ever gotten back to him about anything.
Despite several requests for comment through a DCPS spokesperson, Janey was not available to address Hudson’s claims.
It wasn’t much easier dealing with administrators who worked under the superintendent. Turnover was one problem. In his 10 months at Ballou, Hudson had four different supervisors. The one he mainly dealt with, William Wilhoyte, the assistant superintendent for administration, wanted to send a team of administrators to the school to figure out what needed to be done. But that never happened. (Wilhoyte says he doesn’t recall making such a suggestion.) Instead, Hudson says, most of his discussions with Wilhoyte centered on the way things worked in Montgomery County, where Wilhoyte had spent most of his career. “I’m not sure why he would say that,” says Wilhoyte, though he concedes, “I did cite examples from there.”
Without support from his superiors downtown, Hudson had little authority to do anything. His reprimands of teachers were meaningless without follow-up from his supervisors. Nor was he able to get rid of the assistant principal or other employees he wanted to fire.
Problems with the school’s attendance counselor, for example, may have cost the school well over $1 million, Hudson says; a school’s budget is determined by its attendance. Some teachers didn’t turn in their daily attendance sheets or filled them out incorrectly. Hudson says he had several meetings with the attendance counselor, asking him to tell teachers how to properly fill out the sheets and send them to the attendance office. He also discussed the topic in a staff meeting with teachers. But nothing changed, so Hudson had the attendance counselor removed from his job for a week. When the problems with the attendance count persisted, Hudson asked to have him fired. (The counselor declined to comment on Hudson’s allegations.)
Lockridge opposed firing one aide, according to Hudson. “One of the shouting matches that I had with Mr. Lockridge was ‘I can’t understand why you want to fire [him]. He’s a good boy,’” says Hudson. “I said, ‘You’ve got to remember this is no longer a boy. He’s a man. And many times this man is doing things you wouldn’t want.…For one, he wasn’t doing his job. Two, [he’s] putting his arms around some of these young girls in a way that is not professional.’”
Hudson did manage to fire one person, a computer technician who he says “couldn’t turn on a computer.” He didn’t need permission to dismiss temporary workers such as him.
By February, Hudson suspected that his supervisors had decided not to keep him the following year. Otherwise, he says, they would have responded to his calls and messages by then.
As the end of the school year neared, the usual chaos in the halls became even worse. Kids started several fires in lockers and trash cans. They also began pulling the fire alarms; the alarms rang almost constantly the last two or three weeks of the year.
It was clear by then that a lot of people wanted the principal gone. Byrd was entering the school one day around the same time as Lockridge was leaving. “He was saying, ‘That man has got to go,’” Byrd says. Lockridge denies saying that.
School ended on June 21. Hudson got a phone call two days later asking him to come to DCPS headquarters. He was expecting the call that day; he’d already arranged to have his attorney present at the meeting downtown. Wilhoyte informed him his contract would not be renewed and handed him his walking papers. “I told him I know more about Montgomery County than I ever will know about this place,” Hudson says.
Hudson was on the local news the next day saying that he didn’t know why he was fired, and that he was surprised that the superintendent had never met with him. He was smiling and didn’t seem upset. An hour or so later, he received a call telling him he needed to come back down to the central office. Janey finally wanted to meet with him, about the comments he made on air. He never went.
Two months after he left Ballou, rumors about Hudson were still flying. “I understand Dr. Hudson has a suit against DCPS,” says another instructor who didn’t want to be named. “If anyone should have a suit against DCPS, it’s the teachers who had to work under him for a year.”
Hudson has filed no such suit; that rumor also is untrue.
Hudson’s replacement at Ballou, Karen Smith, has received more support from DCPS. Smith, previously an intern assistant principal at McKinley Technology High School, began the school year with five new assistant principals and a new administrative assistant.
The school also received some new air conditioners; those had been Hudson’s first request after he became principal.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.