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 achievement is that Bonton accepts no excuses. She understands the hurdles her students face in growing up poor, but she says, “We don’t have lower expectations just because these kids are on free lunch.” Much of the credit, she is quick to point out, goes to the teachers, who “might have to be mom, dad, psychologist, friend, provider, everything.” And they know that high self-esteem is nothing without academics; there’s no coddling here. As Rosie Johnson took some of her first-graders through a phonics lesson, she would sound out a letter or word, then make each child repeat it. They had to say it right, but they also had to say it loud, and if they didn’t, they had to try again. Students aren’t the only ones expected to perform. Armed with the keen business sense she honed during a post-college stint in marketing, Bonton preaches productivity to her staff. A member of the school’s administration observes every teacher for ten minutes once a week—at most schools it’s twice a semester—and those who don’t measure up are sent to the principal’s office for a conference. Even more impressive is Bonton’s plan for having at least 90 percent of her students pass the TAAS. For the entire school to reach 90 percent, the logic goes, each class must be at 90 percent. So teachers organize their lessons in a way that will cover every element tested on the TAAS by December. Then students will take a mock test, and the teachers will get breakdowns of their classes’ scores, showing strengths and weaknesses by subject. They will have until spring, when the real test is given, to make the grade.
As much as Bonton dwells on procedure, she also knows when to bend the rules. In 1993, her first year at Pietzsch, she toured Houston’s Wesley Elementary with its legendary principal, Thaddeus Lott, and learned about a special program that had kindergarteners reading on first- and second-grade levels. She wanted it at Pietzsch, but the Beaumont school district hadn’t approved the materials. Rather than go through the district bureaucracy to get the books, Bonton simply called the publisher, ordered them herself, and sent the bill to headquarters. They paid it.
More than anything else, an effective principal has enthusiasm, and Bonton’s is infectious. When she really gets going, she can sound like Jesse Jackson: Explaining the close monitoring of teachers, she intoned, “What we ex-pect, we must in-spect.” Marian Pekar, a curriculum coordinator, says, “Ms. Bonton is so energetic. She’s in the classrooms every day.” In education, as in business, such talent can be hard to keep, but this principal insists she isn’t looking to move any higher into administration. “I love this challenge,” she says. “This is my calling.”