I don’t forget the parents who beat the odds: Q & A with Dayton Liberty Academy’s T.J. Wallace

This Q&A with T.J. Wallace, the executive director for Dayton Liberty Academies, is the sixth of our seven-part series on school leadership. (Please see our Q&A with Dr. Glenda Brown, Andy BoyDr. Judy Hennessey, and Hannah Powell Tuney, and Chad Webb.)

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Two years ago T.J. Wallace was recruited to be a principal at the Dayton Leadership Academies. His job was to turn around the Dayton Liberty campus, which was facing possible closure for back-to-back failing state report cards.

At the time, EdisonLearning, Inc., a for-profit management company, was operating his school and a second, known as the Dayton View campus. Both had poor test scores and were plagued by administrative chaos. The schools’ board and their authorizer, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, were out of patience. Fordham and the board took matters into their own hands and chose Wallace, imposing him on their management company.

This year Edison Learning is gone and Wallace is the executive director of both schools.

The 58-year-old former Catholic high school principal is running one school that last year was graded a “C” by the state and a second that received an “F.” The K-8 buildings can hold more than a 1,000 students each, but enrollment has plummeted from 2,500 in 2004 to 735.

Wallace is taking over buildings that, for more than a decade, were managed from afar. His board and Fordham have given him two years to stop the enrollment decline and to bring up test scores.

Wallace began his career teaching social studies at Sandusky St. Mary Central Catholic High School. He became principal at Dayton’s Chaminade-Julienne High School in 1984, a job he had for 12 years.  CJ, as the downtown school is known, was named a National School of Excellence in 1989 by the U.S. Department of Education.

 In 1996, Wallace opened the Center for Catholic Education at the University of Dayton, where he also has taught.

Prior to Ohio’s passing its law that allows free charter schools to compete with traditional public schools, Wallace was instrumental in starting Dayton’s PACE program, Ohio’s first privately funded scholarship fund that gives private school tuition assistance to low-income families.

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Wallace.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to teach?

A: I had an American history teacher, a nun, in my junior year in high school. I caught the teaching bug from her.

Q: What did you learn from being a parent of four children that has helped you as a principal?

A: I was a principal the first time at 26, so learning to be a principal and a parent happened kind of simultaneously. I learned not to rush to judgment. There is always a back story. What happened on Tuesday may explain why a child acted the way he did today.

Especially with the kids we’re dealing with at the Dayton Leadership Academies, I have to summon patience – because of the volume of back stories that they’re bringing to school. I also realized the importance of not being arbitrary.

My elder daughter was famous for asking me if I believed that teachers were always right. I said, “Yes, they are.” That’s pretty arbitrary, but, out of the four kids, guess who became a teacher?

Q: Some people believe that most U.S. schools do a great job, that where we’re failing is with poor and minority kids. Do you buy that?

A: It depends on what the targets are. I think there are times and places where the brightest don’t get as challenged as they deserve. But I hardly consider that a national issue compared to the many kids in poverty whom we don’t get outraged about when they don’t get the education they need.

Q: You’ve been in administration a long time. What was the worst hire you’ve ever made? What did you get wrong?

A: When we’re talking about the worst, you find out pretty quickly.

When I was teaching a class for principals at the University of Dayton, I always said the most important staff development occurs during your hiring. The biggest challenge is predicting how someone is going to do with his or her first classroom.

The difficulty of making good hires here is pronounced because the pool of applicants is small compared to what some of my counterparts have. Most teachers know they don’t want to come here because of the challenges.

If you’re in a hurry in the hiring process, somebody or something has to slow you down. We send applicants questions that they have to answer before we talk to them, including “Why did you specifically apply here?” When they don’t know anything about you, that’s a flag. It’s mid-November, and I’ve replaced three teachers this year.

Q: What advice did you give your students that you wish you could take back? What should you have told – or not told – aspiring principals?

A: I think I would have been more blunt. When I would ask why they were taking the class, about half of the class had zero intention of going into administration. Their districts were paying for them to get their principal’s license and they would get a raise.

If I had been really blunt, I would have said, “Why don’t you find another a class?”

Q: What did you learn when you were involved with PACE – Parents Advancing Choice in Education – a Dayton non-profit that gives low-income parents privately funded scholarships to send their children to a private school?

A: How extensive the belief is that schools don’t really have to engage parents because parents don’t have any power. Many folks who are the most challenged in their lives can’t spend time at their kids’ schools. Many school administrators take these people for granted.

I met a lot of parents who were disillusioned, or who had been disrespected, or both. They had an extreme amount of skepticism because they had been promised a lot of things that never happened.

Q: Your teachers at the Dayton Leadership Academies have not had a raise in four years. What do you tell them when they ask when the freeze will end?

A: That I’m working on a multi-year compensation plan and that the board has encouraged me to bring that to them.

When I became principal at Chaminade-Julienne, our teachers were earning in the high 70-percent range of the composite average salary of eight area districts. We had a fundraising campaign, and the first thing we did with the money was fully fund our professional development program. Then we got more aggressive on salaries.

Teachers were leaving because they could earn $6,000, $8,000, and $10,000 a year more elsewhere. With that kind of difference, you couldn’t even throw Catholic guilt at them.

My strategy was to pay people enough that it made it more difficult for them to leave. It’s expensive, but they were able to choose Chaminade-Julienne as a career.

I want to do that here. But for the last two years, when EdisonLearning was in charge, I’ve had no say.

Q: What’s the growth plan for the Dayton Leadership Academies or is the goal just to stabilize enrollment?

A: Our budget was built on having 746 kids. We ended up in the 735 range – which is an 8 percent decrease from last year’s enrollment. We have started to arrest the double-digit percentage losses.

Q: Your work has been in small systems. If someone asked you to be superintendent in a traditional public school district – an urban public school system – would you take it?

A: No. I have to be able to be flexible enough to adapt and improve quality. Quite frankly, a superintendent can’t move the whole mountain. They just move pieces until they get the next offer to move to another district.

I say that respectfully of the people who’ve done it. Michelle Rhee, when she was chancellor in Washington, D.C., could only do the job for a short time. Eventually the opposition wins.

Public school superintendents say privately that they envy leaders in private schools in part because private schools can kick out kids. But if they had a choice, they’d rather be able to move out adults.

Kids will behave if they’re inspired by the right people.

Q: Is teaching in an urban setting only for young teachers – given what it takes to achieve excellence in a classroom where so many students have so many needs?

A: It’s definitely grueling. The places I’ve visited that are showing the most promise are clearly relying on the youngest among us and those with the least experience. Many on their staff haven’t gotten married or had children. They’re very mission-driven, very inspirable.

I don’t really think those who have success in these jobs are burning out. They just end up being attracted to something that is a little less crazy, that doesn’t require an around-the-clock commitment.

Q: Tell me about a child you won’t forget and about a parent whom you won’t forget.

A: There was a strapping athlete who, on the surface, had everything, and everyone envied him. He tried to drive himself into a telephone pole. It was over a girl.

The kids who committed suicide or who tired it – I’ll never forget them.

I don’t forget the parents who beat the odds – for their kids. They will bootstrap whatever is going on in their lives – when almost anyone else would have given up.

Many of our parents are working multiple jobs, but they’re very present. No matter what their education level, they’re trying to learn. And they see the best in everybody who’s trying to help their kids. I don’t know how they do it.

Q: Would you do it all again, go in to education?

A: I got into education administration young and left pretty young, so I never got it out of my system. The most gratifying place to be is where the biggest change is. As long as the Reds were not drafting me when I was coming out of college, I’d do it again.

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