A principled principal [Commentary]

If I consider the span of my 59 years, there is an obvious theme: I don't deal well with authority. When my high school tennis coach wouldn't let me wear my tie dyed t-shirt to a match, I stormed off the bus. I was fired as a waiter after following a patron out the door to lecture her on how to tip. As a Baltimore City teacher, I left two schools because of my inability to accept what I considered to be overbearing principals. A third principal, spotting this characteristic, sent me packing before I could quit.

Then I met Mike Chalupa, who changed everything for me.

In August 2005, still hopeful of finding a school where the needs and aspirations of children came before a principal's obsession with test scores, I joined the staff of a brand new charter school, City Neighbors.

That first year was not a seamless success. It was hardly surprising. You had the aspirations of a bundle of parents who had labored for years to create a unique place for their kids to learn. The parents had committed themselves to the principles of Reggio Emilia, an Italian philosophy that called for infusing art into every school subject. Combine that with a diverse group of newly hired teachers who, mostly, came from traditional school experiences. We couldn't spell Reggio Emilia, let alone teach it. Inevitably, it was a daily muddle.

Despite some missteps, those early months convinced me I'd landed in a new educational universe. Bobbi Macdonald, a founding parent and a hurricane force, helped design an arch, still on display, to explain the school's philosophy: It showed the students at the top, followed by teachers and the principal. Teachers selected one of their own to serve as a voting member on the Board of Directors. Bobbi made the rounds that first year, asking teachers, "What do you want? What do you need?" Couches appeared, along with bookcases, curtains for the windows, money for field trips.

I began to sense power as a teacher for the first time in my career.

Then, just as we were gaining momentum, an unexpected bump. The first principal hired by the parents decided to leave and return to Colorado.

A lucky roll of the dice tossed Mike Chalupa our way, and it didn't take long before even someone as arrogant as I was won over. Deeply entwined in his DNA is the belief that teachers are the overwhelming influence in a student's life, and a principal's primary mission is to support that relationship. A perfect match.

I will never be able to reconcile how Mike could take every loony idea of mine seriously. Six years ago, while I was teaching a unit on the Holocaust, I made an offhand remark to him about how compelling it would be for the students to visit a concentration camp.

"How can we make that happen?" he asked.

A month later, a group of German social workers visited our school and we discussed the possibility of a student exchange. The following year, I was on a plane bound for Germany with fifteen eighth graders. We spent several unforgettable hours in stunned silence walking the grounds of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin before heading to host families in Leipzig. The student exchange has continued for the past five years. Mike has maintained that if a student wants to go, but can't afford it, money will be found. He has kept his word.

Unless you have an appointment, the chances of finding Mike in his office are bleak. He could be in any of a million places — a special education review, meeting with his group of middle school advisees, attending his monthly coffee with parents, or sitting in the back of a classroom. At the beginning of every school day, Mike has stood at the top of a set of stairs and greeted all the children.

A few months ago, Mike asked to speak to me. We found the library empty. He said he was leaving as principal of City Neighbors to become academic director of the three City Neighbors schools.

My most productive years in the classroom have been with Mike beside me. Despite my many shortcomings, Mike has always believed in me. What profound energy that has unleashed in my teaching life. I have been deeply touched by the character and actions of this man.

Peter French is a reading and social studies middle school teacher at City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore. His email is bigbluedf@verizon.net.

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