5 Reasons to Know: Shimon Waronker, First-Year Doctoral StudentBy Lory Hough
Gangs controlled the hallways. The middle school had gone through six principals in two years, the last staying less than two months. Neighbors locked their doors as soon as the end-of-day bell rang. When Shimon Waronker walked into J.H.S. 022 Jordan L. Mott in the South Bronx, N.Y., in November 2004 to become its seventh principal in two years, he had a lot of reasons to be worried. Instead, he was determined — determined to take back the school, starting with the gangs. A member of the Chabad- Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Jadaism, Waronker didn’t look the part of a renegade, but by the time he left in June 2008, the school had done a 180. It was no longer on the city’s most dangerous list. Attendance was above 90 percent for the first time in years. Students took etiquette training. Now in the Urban Superintendents Program, Waronker wants to see if he can bring this success — success he attributes to the students, teachers, and parents — to the district level.
1. Despite the danger, he knew he had to take the job. “At first I thought, I might not survive this. Forget career — physically I may not survive. But that community was suffering. I didn’t want to give up on those kids.”
2. During his tenure, he let go of nearly half the teaching staff. “It’s a crime that students have to be with a teacher who is not helping. The job of a principal is to help teachers help students or help those teachers find different careers.”
3. Born to a Chilean mother and American father, he grew up in South America and won over students by speaking to them in Spanish.
4. A ROTC graduate who studied tactical intelligence, he applied counterinsurgency strategies to squelch gang activity. He invited gang leaders to join the newly created student congress. He went room to room, talking to students about the evils of gangs. Gang leaders who didn’t join were sent to other schools. “After that, the students saw that the principal had authority. If I could take out the gang leaders, I wasn’t afraid.”
5. This father of six says that, over time, the school developed a singleminded belief that students should feel loved and respected. “It goes back to what the purpose of education is: to make this a better world. You do that by looking out for number two. Not number one.
photo by Martha Stewart