A tour of duties

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The boy’s profanities float on the wind. They are undetectable to the average ear, but Barbara Eason-Watkins picks them up as she cruises the exterior of James McCosh School in Woodlawn, minutes after the first bell has sounded on the cool morning of Sept. 23. “Marcel, come over here,” says Watkins (as she prefers to be called). A 45-year-old woman in a lime-green pants suit, she ushers Marcel to a private section of sidewalk and tells him to clean up his mouth. “Marcel’s mother is very supportive of him,” remarks Watkins after Marcel has departed, “but he gets into some little things.”

“‘Morning, Boston,” Watkins says to another lad, motioning him inside and flashing the high-voltage smile that is her signature. She tells a grandmother, a schoolhouse regular, that she hopes this day goes better than yesterday, which didn’t go well at all. A parent wants directions to the McCosh auditorium, and Watkins gives them.

“It’s after 9, and you ought to get to class,” she tells two tardy girls, who push off but not before casting the principal an evil eye.

Opened in 1896, McCosh was named for the 11th president of Princeton University, a Scotch-born philosopher, back when Woodlawn was up-and-coming, white and prosperous. Woodlawn is now a poor black neighborhood infested with gangs. “Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth,” says Watkins. “Why, some of our parents are gang members.” One evening a couple years ago, an 8th-grader was killed on the playground in a gang-related shooting.

McCosh serves 1,050 students whose lives are far outside the mainstream. Many children arrive at kindergarten never having crossed paths with a book. The mobility rate is staggeringly high; as many as 40 percent of children who start McCosh each fall will have moved on by the end of the academic year.

But these problems only energize Watkins, the principal for nearly a decade. “My heart is at McCosh because here the need is greatest,” she says, “and I’m not afraid of a challenge.”

Indeed, Watkins is widely credited with having given the downtrodden South Side school new hope. Her approach is a modern one that is grounded more in collaboration than in top-down orders.

Just as theories of business management have changed over the last decade, so too have theories of school management. “The days of the John Wayne school leader are over,” says Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center, a function of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “A good principal, who has a disproportionate influence on the health of a school, is somebody who unlocks the talents of folks to take ownership and responsibility for what they are about.” In that, Barbara Eason-Watkins exemplifies the modern breed.

But it’s no easy act. “To do the job right you need native ability plus skills you pick up along the way, from working with others to the analysis of curriculum,” observes Karen Carlson, a former principal who now directs the Chicago Schools Academic Accountability Council. “The best ones make the job a lifestyle—a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week thing. To reach that level you have to want it so bad you can taste it.”

“There is nothing about being a principal that I take lightly,” says Watkins. “I try anything and everything to make McCosh the best it can be.”

Watkins’s day has begun at 5:30 a.m., which leaves enough time to exercise and pack lunches for herself (turkey sandwich) and her dentist-husband Irvin (leftover pizza, sweet-potato pie and fruit). Her job, which pays $80,000 annually, normally keeps her pumping for 10 or more hours.

Well before the school day begins at 8 a.m., Watkins reposes for a few moments in her office, a narrow, high-ceilinged room whose wood cabinets are topped with stuffed animals. Since it’s the start of the academic year, Watkins says, lots of students are transferring in and out, creating confusion in the classrooms. “In this one 6th grade, half the class just transferred in. The teacher came to see me yesterday, concerned about all the varying ability levels he has now.” Yesterday, too, a substitute teacher held down a classroom that had ballooned to 41 children. “She weathered the storm,” says Watkins, who will sculpt a new 5th-grade room to relieve the crowding.

Watkins sweeps out into the school office, into the hall and down a set of stairs. Near the cafeteria, a mother corners Watkins to say her daughter, a new 7th-grader, has been set upon by classmates. “They throw food at her,” says the mother, her daughter clinging to her side. “Security had to walk her home last night.” Watkins promises to get to the bottom of the situation.

Moving on, she strides into the McCosh library, where some teachers are readying a schoolwide technology plan to be submitted to the state. “Mrs. Watkins is here!” announces one teacher with more fanfare than the principal’s entrance warrants. The teachers are dispersed at tables marked with paper tents reading “vision” or “professional development,” and Watkins drifts around the room. “In terms of formative assessment, the state’s going to look closely at how our committees will come together,” Watkins says to one clump of teachers. “Look closely at what you’re saying and at your timetable.”

Regularly she flashes her smile, capping it with a hearty laugh. “Barbara keeps a light tone to her doings, and so things don’t get weary and dark,” relates one associate. “She smiles and laughs and shakes your hand, and you’re willing to do her bidding.”

Next it’s off to a session that Sam Bunville, a social worker from Metropolitan Family Services (formerly United Charities), is holding with teachers of 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade boys, whom he counsels in groups. The teachers give Bunville frank feedback. “The biggest thing my boys need to know is that every time they disagree, it doesn’t have to end up in a fist fight,” one teacher tells Bunville. “If they can get that down, it’d be half the battle.” Another teacher rolls his eyes: “This one kid, no bigger than a hat, had words in the lunchroom the other day and went off like a rocket.” Watkins is there just to listen, though she offers at one point that before-school advisory periods, a voluntary, twice-weekly option for middle-schoolers, should help.

The first bell sounds, and the teachers gather up their belongings and head for the door. “Mrs. Watkins, who do I give this form to?” one man asks. “Me,” she says matter-of-factly before walking downstairs and outside, to shoo in straggling students, among them Marcel.

In the late 1980s, McCosh was languishing, its student body swollen to 1,300 and its test scores in the range of abysmal. Many considered Ronald Robinson, then the principal, no more than a caretaker. “Mr. Robinson was mostly non-visible,” relates Mary Rodgers, a longtime McCosh teacher. “Half the students didn’t even know he was the principal. Privately he played favorites with the staff. If he had a problem with you, he’d haul you into his office and bawl you out.”

In 1987, Mayor Harold Washington died, and Robinson was appointed to fill Eugene Sawyer’s aldermanic seat after Sawyer became acting mayor. (Robinson subsequently stood for election, but lost.)

Watkins, then the well-considered principal at Mollison Elementary School in nearby North Kenwood, applied for Robinson’s old job. The McCosh Local School Improvement Council, an appointed group and forerunner to the elected local school council (LSC), weighed her as a finalist against a male candidate. “A segment on the council felt McCosh had to have a man in charge because of the gang influence,” says Watkins. “The vote was close, but I was selected.”

When Watkins took over in February 1988, she found a place where the curriculum varied widely, not only grade to grade but often room to room. The campus was divided both physically and in spirit. Primary students occupied a two-story, 1960-vintage addition while older students were in the four-story main building. “There wasn’t a lot of communication between the buildings,” relates Watkins. “The primary building was viewed as a country club where people didn’t have to work hard.”

Watkins hosted coffee-and-donut discussions among the teachers, “and that broke down some barriers,” the principal says. “Teachers began to trust one another.” A $10,000 grant from The Joyce Foundation helped focus the curriculum on literacy and the use of manipulatives–pegs, blocks, chips and games–to teach math. Soon, McCosh teamed up with Hyde Park High School around the concept of a middle school for 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders. Many teachers left, either taking early retirement or vamoosing for another school. “The older regime didn’t care for Mrs. Watkins,” says Glenn Hayes, the original LSC chair. But those who remained or were freshly hired showed a new enthusiasm.

Collegiality among the 65 teachers has increased markedly. Previously, professional development at McCosh, as at most schools, meant importing some outside speaker to deliver the dry word on a topic. No more. Now every other Wednesday, a McCosh teacher will enlighten the rest of the faculty on a topic she has researched—be it classroom computers or children’s book clubs, called “literature circles.” Once a month, the faculty gathers in the library for the McCosh “breakfast club,” where current issues are mulled over as teachers eat pancakes, eggs and hash browns. “We present a pretty good breakfast,” says Geralyn Wilson, a language-arts coordinator and the breakfast club doyenne. “We get them in and then draw them out.”

The McCosh middle school has continued to grow, thanks in part to a $200,000-a-year Annenberg Challenge Grant shared by Roosevelt University, Hyde Park High School and three other feeder elementary schools. The group won the grant for its work to ease matriculation to secondary school. McCosh middle-school teachers share a common preparation period three times a week. A double period has been carved out weekly for science lab, and math instruction is being further revamped in favor of manipulatives and word problems—”the computation of everyday life,” says Deborah Wade, the 8th-grade math instructor.

“In reading we found that basal readers weren’t impacting our kids,” says middle-school coordinator Mary Rodgers, “and so we turned to the whole-language thing.” Eighth-graders read “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Black Boy” and “The Black Pearl” and then discuss the novels, often in context with social studies and other subjects.

Writing had been a forgotten stepchild at McCosh. “Three or four years ago, all we had to go by were the systemwide goals and objectives of the board, which weren’t much,” says Watkins, who assigned a committee of teachers to set more specific demands at each grade. Currently, a 3rd-grader, for example, must be able to write a five-paragraph essay, know how to elaborate ideas, indent paragraphs and capitalize first letters of proper nouns.

McCosh under Watkins has also spawned several programs that knit the school closer with its families and neighborhood. Even Start, a state-funded outreach, seeks to involve parents of students up through 2nd grade in joint activities such as computer exercises or reading; it also offers GED and job-search classes. Recognizing how seminal grandparents are to family solidity in Woodlawn, McCosh has a grandparents club. A project called Real Men Read enlists men, some of them prominent, in reciting stories to groups of youngsters. Watkins herself recruited her husband, her pastor and Warren Chapman, The Joyce Foundation’s education program officer, as Real Men.

By 9:10 a.m., 15 parents (fewer than the anticipated number) have taken seats in the yellow-walled auditorium for a presentation on Even Start. After a pro-forma greeting, Watkins exits to consult with a parent and a teacher. A study published in 1984 by professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that principals spend their days in interactions that average less than two minutes, exchanges that only get shorter at the beginning and close of the day. Watkins’ interactions may not be all that brief, but they’re close.

She drops into a prekindergarten room where 4-year-olds, seated on a broad rug, are singing “The Name Game.” When Watkins gives her own name, the little ones incorporate it into the song. Watkins herself is forever addressing youngsters as well as adults by name–on the way out, Watkins greets a parent (“Hi, Fay”) and calls out to a youngster–a practice that has a purpose.

“If children hear me call them by name, even if they’ve been at McCosh a brief while, it makes them feel special,” she says. “They realize someone knows and cares for them.”

Back in Watkins’ office, the new 7th-grader who felt picked on, her mother and the girl’s alleged tormenters have assembled with Tony Harmon, the school disciplinarian. “I spoke to you the other day,” a firm-voiced Watkins reminds the other girls. “One of the things I said was that I didn’t want you to get caught up in any foolishness. We aren’t going to have anybody being intimidated at McCosh, period. I would expect any new student to be welcome in this building.”

The other girls proceed to blame the newcomer for insulting them with swear words, and, after hearing another side of the story, Watkins addresses the victim: “As the new kid on the block, you have to be careful what you say. Sometimes people take offense.” Soon the victim’s mother asks her daughter to apologize for her cursing, and the leader of the other girls says she’s sorry, too.

Watkins takes off the flat black shoes she’s been wearing in favor of tan Esprit walkers, makes a bathroom stop and is off on her daily mid-morning tour of McCosh.

Watkins grew up in southwest Detroit, the only offspring of Ceroy Hollis, a factory worker at Chrysler, and his wife Gladys, a longtime schoolteacher. “Barbara was a very good child,” recollects Gladys Hollis. “She studied hard. I never had any problems with her. But from the first

she was always strong-willed. When she was in kindergarten, my husband went to pick her up at school, and she walked off because she didn’t want anyone to call her a ‘kindergarten baby.'”

While a University of Michigan undergraduate, Barbara toiled summers in a hospital lab and flirted with—but ultimately rejected—a medical career. “I didn’t enjoy the sickness, the death aspect,” she says. She did find enjoyment in a stint as a teacher’s aide and decided to major in education. “My mom was very proud,” says Watkins. (Watkins’ maternal grandmother had been a teacher, too, at a black country school in Alabama.)

By 1974 Watkins had married an engineer, moved with him to the Chicago suburbs, given birth to their son Justin (now a University of Illinois student) and gone to work as a day-to-day substitute at Mahalia Jackson School on west 88th Street. Later she taught in the primary grades at Carver and Scanlan schools on the South Side. She and her first husband divorced. Armed with a master’s degree in administration from Chicago State University, Watkins took and passed the Chicago principals’ exam in 1983. Within two years, she was picked to run Mollison, a facility serving fewer than 500 youngsters.

She arrived at Mollison to find a fouled atmosphere; Dorothy Tillman, then a Mollison parent, had recently engineered the ouster of veteran Principal Dorothy Stevens. It was a bruising public battle with the inevitable racial overtones—Stevens is white. “I was aware of what had happened at Mollison,” says Watkins. “This was a difficult period, and it was hard to keep everyone’s morale up, but there seemed interest in building a quality school.” As for Tillman, who parlayed her school activism into a seat on the City Council, Watkins says, “We had a mutual level of respect, so we didn’t have any problems.” (Calls to Tillman went unreturned.)

More than anything, Watkins focused on her faculty, making sure they had enough textbooks and supplies so that “no one had any excuse for not teaching,” she says. She learned how to buck up teachers who weren’t bad per se, but “just needed a little extra support.” With only one school clerk, she also was forced to master office routines—”all the nitty-gritty,” she says. As she would go on to do at McCosh, Watkins also got teachers to plan together, “and that way we broke down their levels of isolation.”

“Barbara had fresh ideas, insight and courage,” remarks Charles Almo, her subdistrict superintendent then and later interim Chicago schools chief. “She stood out in a group of standouts.” Almo would nurture Watkins and a half dozen other neophytes, including Cozette Buckney, presently Chicago’s chief education officer. As test scores rose at Mollison, Almo told Watkins, “Barbara, you could run Mollison looking out the window. You should move on.” Almo encouraged her to apply for the principalship at Kenwood Academy, and when she demurred, he suggested she consider McCosh, a larger elementary school.

At McCosh, Watkins has made teamwork her hallmark. Each spring, when McCosh prepares its school improvement plan (SIP) and budget, including $1.3 million in discretionary state and federal dollars, Watkins involves two dozen teachers and staff plus a couple LSC members. “It is a ‘we’ thing,” she says. LSC Chair Coleen Cokely, a substance-abuse counselor and a McCosh alumna, remembers months of early-morning SIP meetings.

Watkins is forever encouraging her faculty and staff to take a workshop, to try some new approach. “If something sounds at all logical, she says, ‘Go for it,'” says Assistant Principal Juanita Skulark.

“When I first started out as a teacher, I saw no use for principals,” remarks Inez Jacobson, a 1st-grade teacher. “Why have them? They didn’t do anything. But when I came to McCosh, it struck me, Wait a minute, we need Barbara Watkins. She really does lead. … You feel someone is behind you.”

Leadership, however, requires more than encouraging words and holding hands. Watkins can also be exacting, enforcing Reform Board rules and easing the resignation of teachers she finds wanting, a common practice among principals who get results. “If someone’s not in sync, you suggest they try another school,” she says. Last year, for instance, Watkins forced out reading coordinator Pat Uba, in part because of Uba’s coolness to a schoolwide writing program. “Mrs. Uba was quite bitter,” says Watkins of the coordinator’s reaction, “but our focus has to be with the children.” Comments Uba, who transferred to another school, “I think she [Watkins] is a great gal. That’s all I have to say.”

Garland Cleggett, Region 5 education officer and Watkins’ immediate superior, first compliments her for her demeanor—”That smile alone can initiate a project”—and then allows that when the pair locks horns, “we negotiate it out.” When her dander is up, Watkins can be plenty forceful. Several years ago, she balked at applying for a U.S. Department of Education collaborative-learning grant because it would involve only a portion of her faculty; she told grant overseers at Northeastern Illinois University that it was the whole staff or nothing.

“She can be very forthright,” relates George Olson, the former education dean at Roosevelt University who supported Watkins in the dispute. “Quickly she will draw a line and say, ‘I know best what my school needs.’ But where other people get p.o.ed, Barbara smiles and does it nicely.” Northeastern backed down, and the grant, involving math and language arts, brought Roosevelt consultants to McCosh.

A good principal should be both a supervisor-planner and a visionary-symbol, says Kent Peterson, a University of Wisconsin education professor and co-author of the book The Leadership Paradox. “It’s best to be what we call a ‘bifocal principal,’ integrated in both the technical and symbolic aspects of the job,” says Peterson.

Watkins concedes that the fine points of the technical side sometimes escape her: “Toilet paper and ordering supplies, I don’t do that. If I didn’t have a great engineer, I’d be in trouble.”

Irvin Watkins says of his wife: “She eats, drinks, walks and talks McCosh. When I get home from work, she has dinner prepared, and then the phone starts ringing, and invariably it’s some educator from her school. She’s a zealot who’s totally involved with the kids.”

Once, relates Dr. Watkins, a girl at McCosh was getting teased mercilessly for wearing the same dirty clothes every day. “So my wife went to Marshall’s and bought the girl a couple outfits,” he says. “When the girl showed up in the dirty clothes, Barbara would wash her up and have her put on one of the new outfits. The parents, who had drug problems, never knew.”

Watkins’ daily mid-morning tour is a way for her to keep in touch with what’s happening in the building and give teachers a chance to share information. She passes through the hallways of the main building, painted gold with black trim (the school colors) and hung with character-building banners (“courage,” “loyalty” and “self-control”). Ducking into the parent room, several classes and the boiler room, she ladles praise on a special education teacher (“He’s done a great job with the kids, especially in math.”) and on her engineer (“With Mr. Holder, I’m blessed, I’m truly blessed.”). Entering the primary building, Watkins points out that the lockers have been painted canary yellow to appeal to the little kids. In the kindergarten, she pats some heads and talks to the teachers.

Doubling back to the main building, Watkins passes McCosh’s playground for older youngsters—a worn swing set and some monkey bars—and a fieldhouse, which stays open until 6 p.m. with after-school programs. McCosh is scheduled for a new campus park, Watkins notes, and board workers are finishing a rehab of the main building. In the school office, she’s told a UPS package containing books has been lost in transit; a frustrated sigh passes her lips. Out in the hallway, she finds Weldon Beverly, principal of Hyde Park High, who’s come over to nail down particulars on an Annenberg class on adolescent psychology.

After eating her turkey sandwich, it’s back to the primary building, where she encounters two teenage alumni in a classroom. It’s unclear why they aren’t in their own classes. “It’s good to see you,” Watkins tells the boys, who are sheepish around her. “Next time you come back, bring me your report card. Give me something to smile about.”

Back in her office, she riffles through papers while talking on the phone with an assistant principal who’s retiring but has left a week before expected, leaving Watkins in the lurch on ordering supplies. The assistant principal isn’t coming straight with her. “Just clear this up with me,” she says harshly. “Was yesterday your last day or not? Let me know the true story.” The assistant principal concedes he won’t be back. “Fine,” says Watkins, “I can deal with that.”

Two other callers are waiting on the line, and Watkins punches the next button on her phone. “Good afternoon,” she says. “This is Mrs. Watkins. How can I help you?”

Since Watkins arrived at McCosh, average daily attendance has edged over 90 percent, and reading achievement has risen significantly, with the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms rising from 13 percent in 1990 to 24 percent today. The scores would have been better if McCosh’s 3rd-graders hadn’t done dismally last year, Watkins points out. Math scores are up modestly, from 22 percent at or above norms to 29 percent. Writing skills have climbed to a level where 93 percent of McCosh 8th-graders meet or exceed state goals.

To keep the upward trend going, Watkins has installed a five-week battery of assessment tests, aimed at helping teachers identify and remediate a student’s deficiencies. There are new honors baccalaureate classes for advanced middle-schoolers. And Watkins has brought in Gloria Pleasant, a Chicago State University professor and reading specialist, to consult at the school.

Watkins has won her share of awards: a Whitman Award, a now-defunct prize for top city principals sponsored by the Rolling Meadows-based Whitman Corp.; and, last year, an Outstanding Principal Award bestowed by the School Reform Board, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and LaSalle National Bank. Watkins is studying for a doctorate in

curriculum development at Loyola University. But she’s not bucking for a promotion.

“A lot of times good people in the system will move on to central office,” she remarks, “I’d prefer to be a field person, not a higher-up. There’s a need for people who are committed and have strengths out in the schools.” If anything, she sees herself someday becoming a university professor who advises schools like her own.

For now, Watkins seems to prize her mother’s assessment most. “Before Barbara was born,” says Gladys Hollis, “I prayed I’d have a child who had wisdom and who was able to make a contribution to the world. It seems I got what I prayed for.”

Grant Pick is a Chicago writer