Samuel Williams: A quiet toughness

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Samuel Williams, principal of Englewood High School, says he once was offered a job at Whitney Young Magnet High School but turned it down.

“The kids there don’t need my help,” he explains. “I have a special thing for the kids nobody wants, the kids with deficits. They’re the ones that need my help.”

Englewood certainly needed help when Williams took the helm in July 1997. Tommye Brown, who had been principal only a year, had just transferred to central office, citing health reasons. Previously an elementary school principal, Brown had been given the formidable assignment of reducing gang influence at the school.

Brown’s predecessor, Warner Birts, had allowed older gang members to help enforce discipline at the school, a practice that had both supporters and detractors in the community. Two older members counseled students and curtailed disturbances inside the school, and eight others supervised dismissal outside the school, the Chicago Tribune reported in October 1993.

The gang connection brought high-level condemnation when Birts opened the school for an awards ceremony held in conjunction with a gang summit aimed at reducing gang violence. Imprisoned Gangster Disciples chief Larry Hoover was honored in absentia for purportedly steering gang members toward lawful pursuits. Mayor Richard M. Daley and School Board President D. Sharon Grant blasted the event for positioning gang members as role models to students.

Ten months after taking office, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas removed Birts, citing the findings of a remediation assessment team; they included lack of leadership, low attendance, a high dropout rate and the lowest scores in the state on the state IGAP test. Vallas picked Brown to replace him.

Williams came to Vallas’s attention when he stepped in to run Calumet High School while the principal took a long leave of absence. To reduce the gang influence there, he barred black and red Nike shoes, popularized by Nike spokesman Michael Jordan, because they constituted a show of colors for the school’s chief gang, the Black Disciples. Some students were so angry they called TV stations, which sent camera crews to campus. According to Williams, Vallas took note and decided he wanted “the guy with the guts to do this” to run Englewood.

Williams’s toughness is a quiet one. Colleagues describe him as calm and unassuming. He has “a quiet way with students,” said one.

Williams says past experience, more than anything, prepared him for the challenges at Englewood. From 1973 to 1987, he taught English at Wendell Phillips High School, which also was reconstituted last summer. Refusing to take his students’ substandard reading skills as a given, he taught them phonics as well.

While at Phillips, Williams obtained a master’s degree in special education from Chicago State University. More than a fourth of Englewood’s students are classified to receive special education services, and the people Williams selected for the school’s administrative team also have extensive experience and training in special education.

Williams worked in the Office of Specialized Services from 1989 to 1994, as assistant principal at the Industrial Skills Center High School from 1994 to 1995 and as assistant principal at Calumet from 1995 to 1997.

While all observers point to Williams as the key to the new day at Englewood, he himself credits a solid administrative team, a cooperative teaching staff and conscientious security and discipline personnel.

“The good things that have happened at Englewood are the result of all of us working together,” Williams says. “It’s not just me. And, too, we all realize we have to continue on. As much as we’ve done, there’s still more to be done.”