Exterior of John Hayden Johnson Middle School
John Hayden Johnson Middle School Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Denied leave requests. Required evening and weekend work. Demoralized educators. More than 20 staff members at John Hayden Johnson Middle School met with DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, Cluster IX Instructional Superintendent David Pinder, and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White on Oct. 9, 2020, to share these grievances about their new principal, Dwan Jordon.

“It’s time for him to go,” a staff member said near the end of the three-hour meeting. (All staff members mentioned in this story requested anonymity for fear of personal or professional retaliation from Jordon. Some feared they’d be branded as troublemakers.) “Right now, Johnson is not what Johnson used to be, or what Johnson is known to be.”

The employee, who’s worked at Johnson for more than a decade, says she’d never done anything like this. She’d only reached out to her union once before, years ago, but now contacts her representative weekly, if not daily, to voice concerns about her school. Her colleagues at the meeting, whom she described as “a family,” echoed her sentiments.

“I have attempted to talk to [Jordon],” another staff member said. “We are told to go through other people. It’s almost like it’s beneath him to talk to us.”

That same day, 30 staff members—a combination of teachers and support staff—signed and sent Pinder and White a petition requesting Jordon’s immediate removal. Johnson’s total staff, including custodians, security staff, and cafeteria workers, numbers around 70. “The staff feels discouraged and worried that the constant pressure and intimidation will affect staff performance and Johnson Middle School students,” the petition says.

Five months later, the conflict has only intensified. Jordon, who has worked in education for more than 20 years and started at Johnson in July, is still leading the middle school, located on Bruce Place SE. Meanwhile, at least five employees have left and even more requested transfers to other schools within DCPS, according to multiple staff members.

“I know almost the entire seventh and eighth grade class. I know everybody by name,” says one employee who started at Johnson in 2017 but quit in the middle of the year due to his conflict with Jordon. “I really feared that [once] I resigned, the kids would think it was because of them … It hurt a lot to resign.”

The situation at Johnson can be seen as a byproduct of new leadership during an extraordinarily challenging time. But those calling for Jordon’s removal argue his leadership style has turned their school into a toxic work environment. It’s the kind of workplace where staff members say they receive text messages at 4:37 a.m. from the principal asking who’s responsible for posting on the school’s Facebook, and where people are allegedly shown their own job descriptions when they raise concerns. “I can’t believe I am now a Dean [of Students],” Jordon said in one text exchange, expressing his disappointment to the worker serving in that role. There’s little trust and grace afforded despite the circumstances, according to multiple staff, and the principal likes to test his employees through assignments—allegedly telling one employee “I wanted to see what you were going to do as a man.”

When City Paper listed the allegations against him and requested an interview, Jordon stated he is “unable to speak to specific personnel matters.”

“In my first year as principal at Johnson Middle School I have been impressed with the overall work ethic and commitment of our staff to our students and families and I know that they share my commitment to moving us from a 2-star (designated by [the Office of the State Superintendent of Education] metrics) school to a 5-star school,” his statement continues. He ultimately declined an interview.

City Paper interviewed 10 current and former Johnson staff members and reviewed dozens of email and text message exchanges between staff and Jordon, along with video of the Oct. 9 meeting between staff and officials. Workers allege Jordon violated the Washington Teachers’ Union contract when he changed school hours without buy-in from staff. They also took issue with his leadership style, describing him as a bully. Even though their jobs changed dramatically due to the pandemic, they say they are discouraged from asking questions, albeit not explicitly. Among the more serious allegations teachers report is a fear of failing students who are not meeting benchmarks because they worry how the principal might respond. Most recently, staff have accused Jordon of retaliating against multiple people in their teacher evaluations after learning they reported him to his superiors.

“About seven teachers that I’ve talked to—just in casual conversation when it comes to grading—they will, they’d much rather change points or something so that students can get a D rather than an F, so that they don’t have to deal with any backlash or questioning about how many students are failing their class,” one teacher says. Two teachers corroborated this sentiment, but no teachers who reportedly admitted to changing grades would speak with City Paper.

“We’re already in a pandemic, which is a stressful environment, and he’s just adding to it,” a fourth staff member tells City Paper. “What are you doing? Are you online? Are you with a kid? Are you in a meeting? And who are you meeting with?” she says, modeling Jordon’s questions. “And if you send an email, ‘Why are you sending this email? Who are you sending the email to? Did I approve the email? If I don’t approve the email, don’t send the email’—and it’s just a lot of micromanaging.”

When staff members ask questions or disagree with Jordon, one-on-one or in group meetings, they say they are met with criticism. “You’re cocky, you’re headstrong, you’re combative,” says a fifth staff member, again modeling the principal.

Jordon initially agreed to be interviewed to discuss his leadership style but then declined. According to profiles on the DCPS website and LinkedIn, Jordon is a DCPS graduate and has worked in regional schools since 1999. He’s been a principal at traditional public and public charter schools in the District since 2008, where his stints lasted between two and three years. He’s also been a member of the DCPS Chancellor’s Cabinet, Mayor Vince Gray’s Education Transition Team, and the State Board of Education’s High School Graduation Requirements Task Force.

“Our students and their families deserve a 5-star school and in order for us to advance this work and provide our community an excellent school, we have made some shifts to our current systems and models, which can cause discomfort—especially in a virtual space,” Jordon wrote in a March 5 email. “However, I continue to work with our staff through our school chapter advisory committee to find multiple avenues to support their needs as we make these changes on behalf of our students.”

According to the District’s five-star school rating system—which is partly based on standardized testing, attendance, and graduation rates—Johnson is a two-star school, as are many schools in D.C’s less affluent wards. The school also receives Title I funding, federal money designated for schools where at least 40 percent of students come from low-income households. Johnson’s student population is 98 percent Black and 1 percent Latinx. The only thing the principal and disgruntled staff seem to agree on is that the school needs to change.

Students struggled before the pandemic. This year only proved more difficult as most kids continue virtual learning. The school also lost a student this year—Jamarid Robinson, 15, was shot and killed steps away from Johnson in late January. Staff believe the rift between them and the principal comes at the detriment of students. It’s unclear if Johnson families are aware of any personnel problems. Ward 8 SBOE representative Carlene Reid, a member of the school’s parent organization, has not heard directly from families about any recent issues.

The fraught working relationship between staff and the lead administrator has resulted in some staff hesitating to fail students even if they do not show up for class, according to five staff members City Paper spoke with. After weeks of personnel problems, which began when school started in late August, and about a week and a half after the meeting with Ferebee, Pinder, and White, Jordon sent some teachers a vague document because they had classes with failing rates over 30 percent. He required teachers to agree on an “action plan” to raise the passing rate and sign the document to affirm their agreement. Teachers were also told to assign mandatory office hours for students who had Ds or Fs and notify their parents.

“In my head I was like, ‘am I being written up?’” says one teacher who received the email. “It just started a lot of chatter because people were thrown off. … We had just had a meeting and there was nothing mentioned in the meeting about it.” Jordon rescinded the document after the Washington Teachers’ Union argued it was an uncommunicated change in working conditions.

Confusion among staff around attendance and grading, in conjunction with DCPS policy changes throughout the pandemic, complicate the situation. According to teachers at Johnson and elsewhere within DCPS, they understand students are to receive at least 50 percent or a “waiting for submission’’ designation when they do not submit an assignment and at least 63 precent on any assignment they do submit. DCPS seems to count students as present so long as they log in once a day. (DCPS deputy press secretary Deborah Isaac would not confirm the policies, writing March 8 that she would “be in touch” with more information.)

According to multiple Johnson staff members, Jordon proclaimed the school had an attendance record over 90 percent. This didn’t match with what they were seeing in their own classes, so they began to question him and vice versa. Communication, particularly about attendance and grading, has broken down, staff members say.

DCPS leadership is aware of the problems at Johnson, as are D.C. councilmembers including Trayon White, Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Robert White (At-Large). The Washington Teachers’ Union and Council of School Officers, the unions who represent the staff, are also aware and WTU filed grievances with the Instructional Superintendent and copied DCPS’ Office of Labor Management and Employee Relations.

“We take allegations of grade tampering and staff misconduct seriously,” a DCPS spokesperson stated in an email after declining an interview. “While we do not comment on personnel matters per our Labor and Employee Relations (LMER) standards and policies, teachers, staff, and students have multiple avenues to share their concerns with us. DCPS thoroughly investigates all concerns raised by community members and determines the best course of action.”

Staff calling for Jordon’s removal have the support of Trayon White, their ward-level councilmember. “I don’t feel comfortable with this principal in Ward 8,” he said during the Oct. 9 meeting. His office questioned why DCPS would rehire Jordon after similar issues with staff were reported when he was the principal of Sousa Middle School between 2008 and 2011. Jordon was credited in a July 2010 Post article with raising test scores at the school after driving out dozens of staff members. City Paper later reported in August 2010 that Sousa still failed to achieve “adequate yearly progress,” leading former teachers to question the effectiveness of Jordon’s approach when it came at the cost of their mental health.

Jordon has the support of the Rev. Ernest D. Lyles, the founder of New Life Ministries DC, a church about a mile from Johnson. Lyles graduated from Johnson, and his great-nephew currently attends the school. He believes Jordon has not had a chance to prove himself as an effective leader and DCPS should not remove him. “I would like to have time to evaluate his performance while students are in school,” says Lyles. He described the Johnson staff he’s worked with as “very good” and doesn’t believe it’s his place to get involved in “personnel matters.” His interest is in the success of students.

“I’m concerned about the deplorable condition of Johnson’s building. I walked through the doors at Johnson School in 1969 as a student. And now 52 years later … 95 percent of the building is the same as it was then, except it is deteriorating. I am concerned about that. I am concerned about our students who are getting murdered,” says Lyles. “And I’m concerned about the fact that these issues, these key issues, are not getting public attention but there is a complaint against the principal that is getting much more attention than these needs that are hurting our students.”

While personnel problems have captured the attention of DCPS officials, what they intend to do about it remains unclear. “I don’t have the power to dismiss someone just because a large group of people was called,” Pinder told staff at the Oct. 9 meeting. “That doesn’t mean the concerns here aren’t real.”

“We only get to success when the people in the building are feeling empowered,” Pinder continued. “I believe that the people are—certainly in my experience with Johnson staff—high quality, hard working staff. And if what is happening here is diminishing their ability, I want to do what’s in my scope of power to support you.”

The process of holding Jordon accountable has been painfully slow for staff who want him gone. City Paper spoke to two staff members who quit when the situation did not change fast enough for their liking. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” one of them says. The employee sometimes worked until 10 p.m. over the summer because he was responsible for distributing technology to families for virtual learning. When other staff members offered to help, he says Jordon wouldn’t allow it because it wasn’t their job. (Those who offered to help confirm this.) When the employee asked for more time to complete this task and others, he says he was accused of disobeying orders and received more assignments. One of those assignments was helping the principal and assistant principals investigate an employee who accused school leadership of taking his leave and reducing his paycheck. (An email City Paper reviewed confirms this.)

The employee who was asked to help investigate says his leave requests were denied because of “high traffic for technology distribution” and the school had no one to cover him. “I have a Doctor’s appointment that is extremely urgent and cannot be rescheduled,” he wrote in an email. In response, Jordon wrote, “You have not expressed any pressing health conditions to me up to this point. … Because the time of the year that you are requesting leave and the importance of your role, it is extremely important that we have a discussion today or tomorrow so that I can have a better understanding of what is going on with you.” In return, the employee said he was uncomfortable sharing his medical conditions, adding “I would appreciate a little bit more understanding.” He says his paid sick leave was not approved.

Others voiced issues requesting leave. In September, one person emailed an assistant principal to take some “use or lose” leave. Jordon, who was cc-ed, responded: “Please focus on dean, culture and climate responsibilities while at work.” The employee has since resigned over repeated issues with Jordon and his assistant principals.

Some staff who butted heads with Jordon started to question their own work. “You can expect greatness from someone without degrading [them],” said one worker, who was removed from the leadership team after reporting Jordon for the way he critiqued her. “Unfortunately, the trust has been broken,” he texted her. “I apologize for trying to groom you for an [Assistant Principal] role. Lol. But I learned through it all.”

Now, multiple staff members say they have been docked in their first teacher evaluations this school year. They describe losing points for attendance and respect, but when they requested evidence, they say Jordon revised their evaluations and added points. While they now “meet standard,” comments are included in their evaluations. A screenshot of one evaluation asks the individual to “please interact with all stakeholders in a respectful/non-accusatory manner.” The comment referred to the teacher, who is a Black woman, accusing leadership of discrimination after they had emailed her and not the White male teacher about nonattendance at a study block they both oversaw.

“Fifteen years as a teacher, three different school systems, six different principals—never cited. I don’t understand,” says one teacher. A comment on his evaluation says he “should continue to assume positive intentions and research policies, procedures, and protocols before accusing others of serious allegations.” The educators accusing Jordon of retaliation believe he should not be responsible for their evaluations.

“He was using the performance evaluation process as a tool to punish the teachers,” says WTU President Elizabeth Davis. Jordon’s actions are, she says, a “testament as to how this performance evaluation process can be manipulated.” (The union has continuously questioned the teacher evaluation system.)

WTU field representative Charles Moore says he’s spent more time mediating issues at Johnson than at the 22 other schools he’s responsible for combined. “It’s very autocratic,” he says of Jordon’s leadership style. Moore was the field representative for Sousa staff when Jordon worked there a decade ago, and he says the complaints against his leadership style back then sound similar to today’s.

Richard Jackson, president of the Council of School Officers, which represents administrators, including Jordon, and business managers and other non-teachers, says his union is not seeing an unusual number of grievances at Johnson compared to other schools. His union, he says, is responsible for enforcing the contract and investigates no matter who is accused of the violations. He wouldn’t comment on specific allegations.

Despite no clear resolution to the conflict between Jordon and the staff, the school year continues at Johnson. Students have returned to the building a few days a week and the staff pushes ahead with in-person and virtual instruction.