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More than a week after the central office in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) removed Errol Johnson from the helm of Hardy Middle School, some teachers continue to express anxiety about the group of parents they credit with engineering the end-of-the-school-year personnel change.
In speaking about the turn of events, a Hardy Middle School teacher who requested anonymity said Johnson, a Black man in his first year as a DCPS principal, wasn’t without his faults.
By the time DCPS central office announced Johnson’s removal on May 18, teachers had been up in arms about scheduling changes they said Johnson made without engaging them. That incident, the teacher said, spoke to the lack of transparency Johnson maintained with teachers and families about on-campus fights and other areas of concern.
Days before Johnson’s removal, hundreds of parents attended a meeting that led to the collection of 447 signatures for a petition demanding leadership change at Hardy. In years past, a small contingent of parents have taken a similar course of action, or at least threatened to do so, against teachers and administrators, the teacher told the Informer.
Despite their qualms with Johnson, the teacher said that this group of parents, most of whom are white and residents of Georgetown, should not be able to compel a sudden, consequential personnel decision, especially with a petition exaggerating on-the-ground conditions at Hardy.
Frustration about Johnson’s dismissal, and previous encounters with the group of parents, has compelled teachers to jump ship, the teacher told the Informer. As recently as last week, a well-regarded teacher left Hardy, which the teacher said has further weakened the sense of community at the school.
“It’s a sustained attack on teachers,” the Hardy instructor said. “Parents have collaborated with the community to get positions [cut out]. I’ve seen it about four or five times. Some teachers are scared or angry. It’s not all parents. It’s a group of extremely powerful parents who are bullies.”
How Hardy MS Parents Organized Against Errol Johnson
The Informer unsuccessfully attempted to contact Johnson. DCPS instructional superintendent Larry Hughes, Johnson’s supervisor, forwarded inquiries about the circumstances of Johnson’s removal to a DCPS spokesperson.
In a May 16 letter sent to DCPS central office, the group of Hardy parents mentioned an incident during which a student brandished a sharp object and threatened their peers. They said the student hadn’t been held accountable for their actions.
The letter also raised concerns about falling standardized test scores, graffiti on the bathroom walls, footage of fights that circulated on social media and other incidents that hadn’t been reported to parents or DCPS central office, even with the involvement of D.C. police and medical emergency personnel.
DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee told the Informer that the parents’ petition had no bearing on the decision to remove Johnson from Hardy. He, however, alluded to an investigation of issues of which he declined to provide comment.
Before working at Hardy Middle School, Johnson served as an assistant principal at Dunbar High School where he managed the 9th Grade Academy. Under his stewardship, ninth grade in-seat attendance increased to 90%, and student promotion rate to the 10th grade reached 96%. Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) l test scores of 4 and 5 also increased by 10%. Johnson’s previous stints include service as a resident principal at IDEA Public Charter School in Northeast and a Teach For America (TFA) instructional coach. While in TFA, Johnson also served as a special education math teacher at Roosevelt High School in Northwest.
Johnson’s time at Hardy, though short, would be peppered with tenuous moments with parents, many of whom reached out to Hughes. Through the school year, Johnson often met with Hardy’s parent-teacher organization co-presidents, members of the local school advisory team, and grade level representatives to discuss campus affairs.
This happened as Hardy Middle School community members testified before the D.C. Council in request of what one parent described as more resources for Johnson, including an assistant principal.
A Hardy parent who requested anonymity said Johnson didn’t appear open to parents’ suggestions about how to stop the proliferation of graffiti on the bathroom stalls. This parent, one of several who signed the petition, also said that Johnson didn’t put systems in place to prevent physical conflicts or hold accountable those who were involved.
In speaking about the petition, the parent said that the DCPS central had already been contemplating replacing Johnson.
“The challenges had become apparent: the principal’s lack of experience, fighting getting worse, falling test scores, teacher retention and the scheduling,” the parent said. “The things needed to run a school effectively were slowly breaking down. This guy had a team of parents working to help him. We engaged him for months. We wanted him to be successful.”
An Administrator Speaks About Bigger Issues at Play
Johnson’s transfer counts among the latest administrative shake-ups to take Hardy Middle School by storm over the last 14 years. Brandon Eatman has been installed as principal for the rest of the school year.
In 2009, then-DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee removed Patrick Pope from the helm of Hardy, much to the chagrin of many parents, staff and students. Efforts to reinstate him fell short. During the next school year, Dana Nerenberg became Hardy Middle School’s principal while also serving as principal at Hyde-Addison Elementary School.
Months later, Nerenberg had been removed from Hardy.
Throughout the years, other principals found similar difficulty working with in-boundary and out-of-boundary Hardy Middle School parents. Lucas Cooke, the leader who some say was able to overcome that hurdle, transferred to MacFarland Middle School in Northwest five years after assuming the top leadership role at Hardy during the 2017-2018 school year.
In speaking about Johnson’s situation, a DCPS administrator who requested anonymity said that it’s highly unusual for a principal to be transferred in the middle of the school year, unless they’ve committed financial malfeasance or sexual acts against students.
That’s why the administrator cited the significant political power of Hardy Middle School parents as an impetus for DCPS central office to make a sudden change in school leadership. They said that not even Ferebee, as chancellor, could overcome that pressure.
The administrator, who spoke highly about Johnson, expressed doubt that DCPS leadership would’ve moved quickly against Johnson had he been overseeing a public school located east of the Anacostia River. They questioned whether DCPS’ central office could have provided more support for the first-year principal who had been thrown into a majority-white space.
This situation, they said, reflected the work that DCPS has to do in fulfilling its commitment to fostering an anti-racists environment for teachers, staff and students.
“It’s obvious that D.C. Public Schools treats that part of their constituency differently. You’ll get a parent in Ward 7 complaining, but it’s not the same in Ward 2,” the administrator said. “There’s more tolerance for violence in predominantly brown and Black schools versus Hardy where students are lighter. Hardy is diverse in the sense that 40% of the families are white. That 40% feels like 90% because of how loud and connected they are.”