Taking back a school Order: The principal at Frederick Douglass High School uses discipline and shared responsibility to keep her students under control.


Rose Backus-Davis spots the offender from 10 yards away, but she doesn't say a word.

She just points a long orange fingernail at the student as he walks down the hall past her, wearing a hat. Off it comes.

No hats are allowed at Frederick Douglass High School. And Principal Davis expects students to obey the rules, learning what will be expected of them when they leave the walls of the school. So as students catch sight of her, they pull their hats off. It's that or buy them back from her.

It is an example of how far Douglass has come in the past 2 1/2 years, since Davis took over a school where students commonly ran the halls and ignored authority.

While Northern High School has grabbed headlines for its 1,200 students who were suspended for unruliness, many of the city's 10 zoned high schools are firmly under control.

"You are going to find that yes, there is order," said interim schools chief Robert Schiller. "You can see ranges, but for the most part, these schools are well managed."

At Douglass, Davis has managed to turn around the school with a mix of discipline and a belief that students should take responsibility for their school.

On one recent morning, the halls are empty and quiet during classes. Students can be found at their desks, some apparently asleep, but they at least are not in the halls, as some of their peers are across town at Northern.

And signs of a new civility can be found in the simplest places. Trash cans are back in the halls and are being used rather than kicked over. The halls are mostly free of graffiti. Toilet paper, parceled out by teachers in many city schools, is going back into the stalls of one of the restrooms.

Students at Douglass don't carry plastic identification cards, because each of the 1,412 students is known by name.

In unseen ways, too, the school has changed. Twenty-five seniors are mentoring the most disruptive ninth-graders this year. The honor society has been reinstituted, a chess club has been started and the first lacrosse game was played last year. For the first time in years, the school will send two pages to the Maryland General Assembly this year.

More than 25 institutions, corporations and community groups are helping students in some way.

Davis, 52, has accomplished all this not just through toughness -- her predecessor ruled by bullhorn -- but by giving the students and staff control. "It has taken every bit of two and a half years to get the staff and students to buy in," she said.

Davis is not the typical authority figure. She is more likely to hug a student than to shout at him. She has a warm smile and hands that are always reaching out to squeeze an arm or pat a back.

"I am not a military type person," she said. "You have to get to know the problems of the child."

But this understanding attitude belies her fearlessness. Davis says that when a fight breaks out, she tells her teachers to get out of the way. She is not afraid to get in the middle and wrestle a student larger than she is to the ground.

One student called it "leaning" on the students. He said he has witnessed it a number of times. "She leans on us because she cares," he said.

What tools or tricks did she use to restore discipline?

First, she made sure she had a staff that could monitor the halls. She hired three former Nation of Islam officers, who walk the halls and take pride in knowing every student.

She armed herself and her staff with walkie talkies so that they can talk to each other when problems arise. And the city police officer assigned to Douglass has gone far beyond the call of duty, signing on as a basketball coach.

Many educators feel big city high schools are unruly because they are too large. So Davis divided her school into academies, including a Junior ROTC and a music academy. Ninth-graders, who she said tend to be the most disruptive, come and go by a separate entrance and are segregated on the third floor.

She made sure parents and students could find her. Her number is in the phone book. On Tuesday and Thursday nights parents can come to the school to talk to her until 10 p.m. "She has such an open door," said Dawn Millner, a social worker at the school. "They [students] respect her."

She deeply believes that a welcoming, clean building will make students feel better about themselves. "The way a building looks determines behavior," she said.

Last weekend, students planted flower bulbs in front of the school. Last summer, a group of students painted the gym.

Despite all the progress, Davis admits that the challenge is always there. "I don't want you to think there are no problems in this school," she said.

Douglass' students come from some of the city's worst neighborhoods. Some are homeless. Others are in street groups. Students come out of jail one day and into the classroom the next.

A gun fell out of a student's pants leg during a fight in the halls in the spring. Davis said she and her staff were able to get the gun and restore order. But she braced for a bad day as rumors of a gun fight circulated and students became agitated. At one point, about 100 students headed for the door.

Supported by her staff, she confronted the students. "I told them they weren't going any place, that we had the gun and that they were going to turn around and go back to their classrooms."

They did.

Instead of kicking disruptive students out, Douglass tries to find them a place in the Twilight School, housed at Douglass. Students can work their way back into the normal classroom.

Halfway through her third year at the school, Davis said she has been able to establish order and discipline. "This year is the best year," she said. "Kids have bought in. They need an education. They are serious." Now, she said, she has started getting down to the most important business -- improving learning in the school.

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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