Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

As principal of School Without Walls, one of the District’s most prominent public high schools, Emily Crandall doesn’t avoid tough decisions. Last school year, for example, teachers charged that Crandall terminated staff members without warning, impounded student art work, and refused to release budget reports.

True to character, Crandall in June informed school librarian Lynn Kauffman that she had been “excessed,” the school system’s euphemism for canned. It was a hard move to defend: Kauffman was popular with students and faculty colleagues alike. In September 1997, Kauffman had received a $37,000 Christa McAuliffe Fellowship awarded by Congress to outstanding teachers. The librarian used part of the grant for computers and training for faculty.

When the chairs of the math, humanities, and science departments heard that Crandall had dumped Kauffman, they wrote letters to schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and to Assistant Superintendent Ralph Neal, entreating them to save the librarian’s job. Although Crandall scoffed at the letters insisting that the humanities teachers never had agreed to correspondence written on their behalf she eventually succumbed to pressure from the teachers and Kauffman. “Ms. Kauffman is the librarian at School Without Walls,” Crandall told a reporter at a mid-August meeting on District schools.

Teachers say Crandall treats prized employees like seasonal laborers because she can. The District schools entrust principals with vast, unchecked power, which they say Crandall has used as a cudgel against people she disagrees with, whether they are students, teachers, or principals. Crandall’s MO has driven out award-winning teachers, alienated creative students, and earned her a few outspoken enemies.

“She’s manipulative,” charges Emily Washington, a former School Without Walls teacher and member of the school district’s emergency board of trustees. “She tries to rule through manipulation. I don’t know that that’s always sinister, but it’s always good to be upfront.”

That a principal with an authoritarian bent should wind up running School Without Walls, ostensibly among the District’s most flexible institutions, is one of the quirks of the city’s public education system. A magnet school that screens its incoming students, it emerged in 1971 as part of a movement to instruct teens who could not perform well amid the conformist strictures of a regular classroom. Rather than shackle students with conventional schedules of four to five periods each day its founders decided, it would be better to let them take advantage of the Washington area’s cultural resources. Students were expected to be highly self-motivated and in return were granted the freedom to write their own schedules. Each Wednesday, for example, they worked as interns at outposts like the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Library of Congress.

As Crandall noted in a Washington Post interview, she bristled at the liberties accorded to her students from the moment she started at the school, in 1989. Immediately, Crandall, who had previously been principal at Janney Elementary School, began to whittle away at the autonomy students once enjoyed, a half dozen teachers, students, and parents say. They once selected their own courses; now their schedules are largely determined by Crandall’s staff, according to School Without Walls parents and teachers. Once, students and teachers jointly designed internships to boost their knowledge; now, Crandall and her administrators typically decide where and when the students will go for off-campus instruction.

Although some teachers and alumni complained that Crandall was betraying the school’s heritage, the high test scores of its students second among the District’s schools in 1996 and 1997 made her untouchable. Some teachers credit Crandall’s leadership for the results. “She gives teachers the freedom to do the kind of instructional program they want,” says longtime teacher Gloria Cobbs.

Crandall also has some well-placed allies outside school walls. School board member Jay Silberman, whose children attended Janney, raves about her, as does Silberman’s respected former administrative assistant, Kathleen Mannix. “She’s just a highly effective, gifted person, in a milieu where more people are jealous of that than are praising of it,” says Mannix, who now is the executive director of Young D.C., an independent newspaper for teens.

And there are parents who give Crandall high marks for prohibiting rap and other popular music from the campus, tightening discipline at the school, and, of course, keeping test scores up. “There’s nobody more dedicated and committed to teaching children how to grow up,” says David Schechter. One of his two sons graduated from School Without Walls. “Just see how many kids leave School Without Walls and do successful things go to college, get scholarships.”

Whatever Crandall’s role in nurturing them, School Without Walls does have its share of bright students. Since some 1,000 students apply for only about 100 open slots each year, Crandall can cherry-pick those who will make her and the school look good. If they don’t perform to her satisfaction, Crandall can exile them. “She puts out 25 students a year,” observes School Without Walls parent Mary Filardo, adding that some students, if kicked out, may end up in bad schools. “People are afraid. I’m in the boundary for [Woodrow] Wilson. I’m OK. About a quarter of the kids are from the Southeast. Their opportunities are not that good.”

Before Crandall arrived, the process for culling students was a little more open. Selection decisions were made by a panel of teachers and administrators who met publicly and gave parents an opportunity to challenge them. But Crandall has monopolized the whole process, teachers say. “She says we can come to the meetings, but they are scheduled during class hours,” complains one.

And if Crandall ends up with a few bad apples, she’d rather expel them than work with them, according to Washington. Some three years ago, Washington testified against Crandall at a hearing on a boy’s dismissal. The hearing officer determined that Crandall had no reason to expel him. After the youth was reinstated, he graduated and enrolled in college, Washington says.

The summary-dismissal policy applies to teachers as well as students, and Kauffman isn’t the first to experience it. In 1994, Crandall accused teacher Charles Bagenstose of striking a child and suspended him for 10 days. The following year, he lost his job. Bagenstose, however, fought the accusation, and in May 1997, Crandall was forced to reappoint him. A hearing officer had determined that the evidence against Bagenstose was not credible, because, among other reasons, “the sole witness who testified to [Crandall’s] version of the facts was a student who was related to the principal,” according to the May 1997 President’s Perspective, the teachers union’s newsletter.

Crandall’s penchant for bald power moves, according to her critics, has divided the school community. For two years, Filardo has tried to work out some agreement among parents, teachers, and the administration on the design and construction of a new school. Like others in the District, the School Without Walls building, built in the 19th century, teeters on inoperability. Five classrooms lack heat, the labs are atrocious, and it’s too small even for the school’s 429 students. But Filardo has been stalled from the start, and she believes the principal should have done more to encourage a constructive dialogue between administrators, staff, and parents about fixing the school. “There hasn’t been a sense of emergency to move the project,” Filardo says. “They aren’t used to collaborating. They don’t have a good culture of working together.”

A group of teachers has tried since October 1997 to obtain copies of the school’s complete discretionary annual budget, a public document. Crandall met with the group, called the School Chapter Advisory Committee (SCAC), and released select facts about school finances. “The school has $47,000, plus $14,000 remaining from the previous year’s budget,” Crandall told teachers in the fall, according to the SCAC minutes. But they never learned whether the figures represented the school’s entire allotment for the year, the minutes say. Their repeated refrain: “We still don’t have complete budget figures.”

During his year at School Without Walls, French foreign exchange student Pierre Hyvernat learned that despite vaunted American protections of free speech, principals can censor anything. Hyvernat conducted a poll showing that 40 of 235 School Without Walls students believed in both creationism and evolution. To account for the discrepancy, Hyvernat suggested that students viewed creationism as a metaphor for events factually explained by science.

Crandall ordered Hyvernat to excise his theory of how the two contradictory views could be rationalized. Like a journalist, Hyvernat took careful notes of his conversation with the principal, and he found out she had some interesting theories about his area of study, which he published in the newspaper after Crandall approved them. “The DCPS biology curriculum is a kind of brainwashing,’” Hyvernat claims Crandall said. “According to her, in Texas, some scientists have proof that after the flood [described in Genesis], which destroyed the earth’s protection against [ultra violet light] from the sun, all the fossils froze.”

Students charge that the principal’s chilling effect on expression hampers writers at the school newspaper, the Wall Paper. “If it’s a story about sex or safe sex forget it,” says a student writer who asked not to be identified for fear that Crandall would retaliate. “If it’s anything that might look bad anything even remotely bad it won’t get in,” the student says.

The visual arts have not gone uncensored, either. Anna Kinsman, chair of the humanities department, hung a display of student collages and writing inspired by surrealist painters like Salvador Dali. One day, Kinsman entered the school only to find that two student collages had been pulled off the blackboard. She sent the artists to find out what happened. The forensics led straight to Crandall. One of the works depicted a girl with the picture of a baby below her straddled legs. Another showed a mixed-gender person with the face of a demon pasted to the crotch. Crandall told the artist the work was pornographic. “It was about inner-city life,” explains Lateef Abney, the student whose work Crandall criticized. “Mrs. Crandall said Michelangelo and da Vinci is what she liked to see, not work that is degrading to women. I told her the purpose of the picture, and that when you create surrealistic art, it’s not supposed to [be realistic].”

The rules at a school that was conceived as a more open-ended learning environment cover just about every form of student behavior imaginable. Students can’t gather on the front steps of the building before or after school or at lunch time. Any kind of public display of affection is barred. “There’s a no-hugging rule,” says the senior student writer. Mimicking Crandall, she adds, “We don’t do that at School Without Walls.”

After initially cooperating with a story, Crandall refused to comment further, saying that she never reads anything written about her and doesn’t care what might be said. “I lost my reputation years ago,” she says. “I never looked for it again.”