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Saturday, August 4, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Troubled school's principal removed

Seattle Times staff reporters

A school with serious problems

District officials ordered a consultant's report released Friday following an internal review and a Seattle Times article last December that raised questions about the school's leadership. What the article found:

Only 24 percent of students graduated on time in 2004-05. By contrast, South Lakes High School, which serves at-risk students across town, graduated 66 percent of students on time. Last year only one John Marshall student got a diploma on schedule.

Teachers do work normally reserved for the principal. Others lead classes they're not qualified to teach.

Over three school years, one teacher was absent more than half the time.

John Marshall students were watching movies, reading newspapers and listening to headphones during a surprise head count last winter. In one class, two of the three students were asleep, even though a teacher and assistant were in the room.

Complaints about the school's leadership date back at least a decade. At least two employees have called on the district to investigate the school's leadership. If there was an investigation, there's no record of it.

Seattle Public Schools removed longtime John Marshall High School principal Joseph Drake Friday after a consultant said the school is ineffective and unsafe.

The district also won't allow the school to accept new students. John Marshall is 6th through 12th grade and serves some of the district's most vulnerable students.

Drake, 66, was put on administrative leave Friday, days after district officials received the report by outside consultants.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson called the report a "wake-up call" and said it wasn't fair to students to wait any longer before making changes, starting with leadership. She also set up a task force to determine where students will go after the Green Lake school's closure in fall 2008.

Removing Drake is Goodloe-Johnson's first major decision as superintendent. She was adamant the district stop enrolling new students at the school, because it is closing and is unsafe. The program has major problems, she said, and, "You don't complicate that by continuing to take students."

The district is also adding a drug-and-alcohol intervention specialist, a family support worker and someone to oversee special education at John Marshall.

Critics of the school, including former staff and students, said Drake's departure came too late.

"It took 12 years for people to realize that he wasn't the best person for the job?" said Kathy Graves, a graduate of John Marshall who now attends North Seattle Community College. "It took the school closing for people to finally notice?"

In 2004, when Graves was a student in the teen-parenting program, she wrote more than a dozen letters of complaint about her teacher, who was absent 108 days out of that 180-day school year.

She wrote to Drake, then to a district administrator, and finally to the superintendent of schools himself. No one wrote her back.

John Marshall serves 185 students with learning disabilities, teenage mothers, kids returning to school after spending time in jail, and students who have been expelled from other schools. For many, it's their last chance at an education.

The report by the National Dropout Prevention Center, based in Clemson, S.C., blamed the district as well as the school's leadership for the problems there.

The district doesn't show support for alternative education, the report said, and it let the school leadership run amok without enough oversight. District policies combined with ineffective leadership at the school forced the school to operate "in 'survival' mode," the report said.

The district has "some ownership in what hasn't been happening at the school," Goodloe-Johnson said.

Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno said work was already under way to make changes at John Marshall, but she said the new superintendent -- who has been on the job less than a month -- was adamant that "if we get students whose needs are not being met, then we needed to act immediately."

The district appointed Stacey McCrath-Smith as interim principal. McCrath-Smith, 43, was previously an assistant principal at Meany Middle School. She has a master's degree in special education and served as principal of a school similar to Marshall in Los Angeles.

She said she will focus on being visible in the school, setting goals with students and providing staff with support.

The report praised teachers at the school for being committed, qualified and caring. But the evaluators said the school had low academic expectations and lacked rigor.

Despite "punitive and heavy-handed" discipline, the evaluators reported, "chaos and disorder" prevailed at the school.

The school was unsafe, evaluators said, and had no security officers or security cameras and no one to check visitors for weapons.

"Wrestling students to the floor and putting them in 'lock-up' is not research-based best practice for special needs students," they wrote.

Drake could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. In an interview last year, Drake defended his leadership style as empowering, and said he has devoted his career to helping at-risk youth.

But his more than 12-year tenure at the school has been controversial. Complaints about him date back more than a decade.

Some staff and students have called him incompetent and accused him of appointing teachers to do his job. One teacher regularly e-mailed the district about staffing matters, signing off "on behalf of Dr. Drake." Several years ago, Drake moved his office out of the school's main office and into a room down the hall, further distancing himself from the school's daily operations.

In the past few years, Graves has watched all of her favorite teachers leave, one by one. A math teacher, an art teacher, and now Audra Gallegos, her English teacher, who has worked with a local tutoring organization, 826 Seattle, to publish two volumes of student work.

Gallegos decided this spring to take a job with the Bright Future program at Seattle Vocational Institute. To really help the students at John Marshall, Gallegos said, she needed more guidance from the district, and more leadership at the school. And after years of waiting, she had no hope that anything would change.

"I felt frustrated by living in a city that preaches so much liberal agenda, but yet they have these really at-risk kids and nobody seems to care what happens to them," Gallegos said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com; Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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