New South Hagerstown High School principal hopes to put swagger into academics

November 26, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • South Hagerstown High School Principal Tim Dawson.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Less than three months into the job as principal of South Hagerstown High School, Tim Dawson has repeatedly visited classrooms, had South High's teachers take part of an SAT exam and had his hair cut by students to celebrate South's football victory over rival North Hagerstown.

"It really was a shot in the arm for the South community," Dawson said of the Nov. 5 win. "One thing that victory does is it helps you get a swagger in the school."  

Dawson, who became principal of Washington County Public Schools' biggest school this past summer, said he wants that swagger to carry over to academics.

Dawson, 47, said he spoke to students, through the public address system, about not just beating their opponents on the sports field, but in attendance and academics such as High School Assessment scores.

Among Washington County public high schools in the last school year, South High had the lowest average composite SAT score, lowest percentage of students attending school, third-lowest percentage of advanced placement or AP tests with a passing score, and was among the schools with the lowest percentage of seniors who passed the individual High School Assessment tests, according to various school system reports.

"We're not the worst school, but we're not the best," he said. "We have to be competitive academically."  

To that end, Dawson recently had South High's teachers take part of the SAT.

"How can you ask someone to teach (for) the SAT when they have not taken the test in 25 years?" Dawson said.

Taking the test helps teachers realize the rigorous academics students need to pass the college-entrance exam, he said.

Dawson took the SAT with them, missing four of 25 questions on the reading portion, he said. The teachers did not have to share their results.

"I thought it might have been an eye-opener for some teachers," said South High psychology teacher Bob Hornbecker, who administers the SAT and is familiar with it.

Many of the teachers took a writing and reading comprehension section, while the math teachers took a math section, Hornbecker said.

As a result of that exercise, an SAT word of the day is provided during the morning announcements, Dawson said. All teachers are required to use that word in class that day to help students expand their vocabulary.

This semester, he issued a challenge to improve attendance, buying doughnuts for the winning homerooms and awarding $25 for class supplies to teachers with the best homeroom attendance, Dawson said.

Small successes can lead to bigger gains, said Dawson, who said he won't always be buying doughnuts for students.

"Once they experience success, they're not going to want to go back to being last in the district," Dawson said.

Senior class President Umar Mahmood said Dawson met with each of the grades recently, focusing on SATs with upperclassmen and on classes with underclassmen.

Dawson was "simply saying that sports and entertainment and things like that are a huge part of a high school career, high school life, but you cannot leave your academics unnoticed," Mahmood said. "And (you) can't wait until the last minute of senior year to compile everything and increase (your) GPA because (you were) goofing off."

Spirit and pride

Mahmood and Hornbecker said Dawson has encouraged school spirit and pride.

Things such as letting students cut his hair after South's victory get students more comfortable with Dawson, Mahmood said.

"He's always talking to students. He's always connecting with them," Mahmood said. "He's a big dude, but he's not intimidating because he's always smiling."  

Dawson is a solid 6-foot-7. He played center, alongside future NBA players Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and the late Reggie Lewis, for the 1983 national championship Dunbar High School basketball team. The Baltimore team went undefeated that season.

He also played for the University of Miami and saw the impact after the school's football team won the national championship. The university raised its entry standards — admitting higher-performing academic students — and attracted more research investment, Dawson said.

Dawson said he's hoping the enthusiasm in the South High community following the Rebels' victory will encourage more community members to volunteer at the high school.

He also is hoping some of the students who live in the South High district, but go to North High, will want to return to their home district school.

Moving west

After graduation, Dawson said he discovered he had a passion for teaching, but wanted to become a principal so he could "have an impact on an entire school and community."

Before coming to Washington County, Dawson's last principalship was at Baltimore City College, a magnet high school.

He was principal there for five years, until the start of the 2010-11 school year. Dawson said he asked to be reassigned to a facilities management job so would have more time to complete his doctoral dissertation.

According to stories in The (Baltimore) Sun from August 2010, Dawson stepped down at a time when the school had experienced declines in SAT scores over the previous three years and a drop in the number of students taking International Baccalaureate exams.

As for the SAT scores, Dawson said the previous district administration would transfer failing students out of Baltimore City College and replace them with higher performing students so the school could maintain its academic standards.

After Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Andres Alonso arrived, that policy changed and magnet schools kept their freshmen through graduation, Dawson said. That led to a decline in the average SAT scores, Dawson said.

City College had freshman who were reading at between a fourth- and sixth-grade level, Dawson said.

To help the younger students, Dawson said, he instituted a middle years program — an International Baccalaureate Organization program — to help freshmen and sophomores. He expected that program to help the Class of 2011 achieve academic gains, Dawson said.

According to a profile of City College at Baltimore City Schools' website, the average SAT score for seniors in 2011 improved to 1,360 compared with 1,314 in 2010.

Dawson said he worked to help younger students bridge their academic gap. He had English teachers, who are more literature teachers than reading teachers at that level, and all other teachers teach literacy.

During his last summer with City College, he said he started a mandatory boot camp for low-performing students to help them with SATs and AP classes. He also said he had all students write essays for their midterm exams, including for physical education.

Dawson said he might incorporate some of those programs at South.

Starting with the 2012-13 school year, Dawson said students will have to take midterms and final exams, in addition to benchmark exams they already are taking. Those midterms and finals will include essays.

Students need rigorous writing assignments that require critical thinking, he said.

Next summer, South High students will have summer reading assignments on which they will be tested during the first day of the school year, Dawson said.

The Killian Nine

Dawson made the news in 1998 when he suspended nine students at Killian High School in Miami-Dade County, Fla., over a pamphlet distributed at the school.

The pamphlet featured a picture of Dawson with a dart through his head, was laced with racial slurs, referred to killing kids and depicted people having sex, Dawson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which referred to the pamphlet as a "satirical political pamphlet," filed suit on behalf of one of the students, who was strip-searched at the jail, according to the ACLU of Florida's website.

Ultimately, the charges against the Killian Nine were dismissed by a state's attorney who acknowledged that the 1945 statute the youths were charged with violating was unconstitutional and unenforceable, according to the ACLU of Florida's website

The ACLU lost the civil case, said Baylor Johnson, who is with the ACLU of Florida.

Killian High School was in distress when he took over as principal, Dawson said, with division among teachers and racial tension at the school. Charged with improving the situation, Dawson said he moved nine teachers out of the school because they were teaching only one or no classes.

Dawson said he believes several disgruntled faculty members used students as a way to rebel and send him a message — the pamphlet.

"I knew that we needed to set the tone," Dawson said of the suspensions. "All I did was suspend them from school."  

Dawson said his boss told him to suspend the students for disruption of school function and for an illegal student publication. The superintendent's office later reassigned the students to other schools for "public distribution of material laced with pornography and provocative language," Dawson said.

Dawson said he got "knocked" in the press for having the students arrested. But Dawson said he did not have the authority to have anyone arrested.

When the Miami-Dade police asked school officials what to do about the situation, however, it was the school system's standard answer when it came to student safety to prosecute, Dawson said. The police notified the state's attorney's office, which decided to have the students arrested, he said.

Publicity from the case led to Dawson receiving death threats, he said.

A police officer was parked in his driveway and he considered sending his children to live with family members, Dawson said.

Focus on instruction

A self-professed Type-A personality, Dawson said he missed the action in a school setting and wanted the professional satisfaction of working with students again.

He applied for a job with Washington County Public Schools in December 2010 because the school district "had many of the ingredients for success."

"I've spent many years of my career going into distressed inner-city schools," Dawson said. "It takes a toll on you physically, personally and professionally."

Dawson said he wanted to work at a school where he could improve curriculum and instruction rather than having to break up fights and trying to find out who lit a fire in the bathroom or sprayed graffiti on school property.

Dawson commutes 45 minutes from Columbia, Md., because his wife, Clarita, is an anesthesiologist at Howard County General Hospital and must live within 30 minutes of the hospital. They have three daughters.

With 1,269 students as of Sept. 30, South High is the school system's largest school, but it is the smallest school Dawson has ever led.

Dawson said he visits classrooms two or three days a week.

"It gives me an opportunity to inspect what I expect," a philosophy Dawson said he adopted from watching the Army Corps of Engineers fix a school roof after Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

"I want every child to see me. I want every teacher to see me. Are kids ready to learn? Are kids engaged?" Dawson said.

He also checks the condition of the classrooms. If he sees a light bulb out or a cracked window, Dawson said he notifies maintenance through a portable radio to get it fixed.

His visits create an "environment of accountability," Dawson said.

When he walks into a classroom to find a student with his or her head on the desk, and the teacher hasn't noticed yet, that student sits up, Dawson said.

Dawson said he would like to see an International Baccalaureate program offered at South High so students have more options. AP and IB programs differ in their teaching and learning styles, he said.

He is among a group of school system officials exploring the idea of changing the course schedule. With South High on a semester schedule, a student could take an AP course in the fall and not take the AP test for college credit until the end of the spring semester. Some students don't even take the AP test, he said.

If AP courses were yearlong, the material would be fresh at test time, giving students a better chance to succeed in earning college credit, he said.

Dawson said he sees his role as empowering teachers and making sure they are in a position to be successful with the students.

"I've walked into a great situation here," Dawson said.

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