IN A WAY, I PICKED A TERRIBLE DAY to Visit Pietzsch Elementary. It was the last Friday in September, and by eight in the morning a vicious storm had dumped five and a half inches of rain on Beaumont. Only about a third of the students could make it to school through the flooded streets, and several teachers were out too, so the children were organized into makeshift classes, sometimes mixing two grades in one room. At most schools the situation would have been a recipe for disaster, but not at Pietzsch. Just because it had rained didn’t mean the kids had free rein: I sat in on three classes and watched several groups walk through the halls, and without fail they were respectful, quiet (except for some squishy shoes), and intensely focused on their teachers. And they all had a smile or a hug for their principal, Shirley Bonton.
Now in her fourth year at Pietzsch (pronounced like the fruit), 37-year-old Bonton has proved that a demanding, innovative, and charismatic leader can guide a school to remarkable success, even in unremarkable circumstances. Pietzsch is the oldest school in Beaumont, and in two years it will close down and classes will move across the street to its sister school, MacArthur. Before the oil bust, the surrounding neighborhood of modest frame houses was home to blue-collar whites who worked in the petroleum industry; today it is largely African American. Nearly 90 percent of the school’s students who took last year’s TAAS test are considered economically disadvantaged, yet 79 percent of them passed all sections of the TAAS.
One key to their