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Eastside High Principal Joe Clark

By THOMAS FERRARO, UPI Feature Writer

PATERSON, N.J. -- When Joe Clark took over Eastside High, he greeted knife-packing, dope-dealing students with a bullhorn.

'I am your new principal, Joe Clark. This is the new Eastside High School,' he boomed. 'What was, exists no more. Get to your classrooms. Please walk to the right.'

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Since that September morning in 1982, Eastside has gone from being a blackboard jungle of gangs fights and terror to an inner-city school of discipline and academic achievement. And Clark has gone from being faceless school administrator to being applauded by the president of the United States.

But also since that day, some rules and laws have been bent if not broken by Clark, who six years ago was the only one who'd volunteer to take the principal's job at the violent school.

Viewed as a miracle worker by some and a dictator by others, Clark is now in a battle with a newly elected school board that says he must obey its orders and state law.

'Liberals! Liberals don't like me. I tell them, 'Go to hell!' scoffs Clark, 48, a one-time Army sergeant who hangs a sign on his office door that reads: 'One Way -- My Way.'

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This month, the board rebuked Clark for expelling 60 students without 'due process.' Clark says he removed the students, many 19 and 20 years old 'adults,' because they had been in school for years but still had less than half the credits needed for graduation and were nothing more than disruptive 'leeches.'

He also has sidestepped contempt of court charges for chaining the school house doors to keep out drug dealers and intruders in violation of fire codes. On Jan. 11 those charges were dismissed when Clark promised to comply.

Clark now carries a baseball bat, along with his bullhorn, in his black and hispanic school of 3,000 students. He told cheering students at a pro-Clark pep rally 'I'll beat the hell' out of any drug dealer who enters.

School Board President Judy Moran isn't cheering. She says, 'Joe Clark must obey the law, just like everyone else.' The board began disciplinary action against Clark that could lead to a fine, reprimand or even suspension.

Gary Bauer, President Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser, says if the school board 'is foolish enough' to get rid of Clark, he can have a job with the White House Domestic Policy Council.

'Joe Clark embodies what President Reagan and Education Secretary William Bennett have been saying about education,' said Bauer. 'I hope Joe Clark is able to stay at Eastside because inner city schools need more people like him.'

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Peter Tirri, president of Paterson's teachers union, says if Clark accepts the White House job, 'I'm willing to buy him a plane ticket' to get him out of town. 'This guy is a despot.'

In six years Tirri's union has filed 50 grievances against Clark, ranging from charges he publicly ridiculed teachers to allegations of unfair labor practices.

Shrugs Clark, 'I make teachers work. Before they didn't have to.'

Eastside teachers support Clark. Some describe him as a savior and others say he is the reason they teach there.

Hollywood is interested in Joe Clark, considering a movie about him. Clark says, 'Bill Cosby has read the script and likes it.'

From that first September day in 1982, Clark has patrolled hallways with his bullhorn, exchanging greetings and handshakes with students and exhorting them to excel. Those who don't try draw Clark's wrath.

'Let's get to class people, let's move,' Clark says on a recent patrol. 'Big Rod -- what's up? ... Anthony (17), how's your wife and child? ... How you doing Baby, your hair looks nice? ... Hi Stretch, when's your first game?'

A steamed Clark marches up to a freshman with high absentism. 'You failed everything. Correct. Seven 'F.' What's wrong with you? Are you waiting to get kicked out? I'll be in contact with your momma.'

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Clark, one of the first black administrators in this industrial city of 140,000 people, says, 'You've got to keep on these kids. It is a constant struggle. They want discipline and I give it to them.'

Most students at Eastside are from welfare families. Few have fathers. 'I'm a father figure for many of them because they believe in me.... I've saved a lot of souls,' says Clark.

'Most students at Eastside respect Mr. Clark. I love Mr. Clark. He's for the student,' says Tasha Thompson, 15, an honor student. 'If you have a problem, you can go to Mr. Clark.'

Clark maintains that the key to a good school is a good principal, one with wide authority to do what is necessary and willing to devote the energy to accomplish it.

'Lethargry on the part of the principal is the most flagrant factor in inferior education at our urban schools. For the most part, urban administrators are indifferent, indecisive and often unwilling to take a state or make unpopular decisions,' says Clark.

'They are responsible for the destruction of the lives of students. Discipline is only a means to an end. And that end is is an improved education.'

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In 1982, when Clark took over, only one in three ninth graders at the end of the semester scored average on the state's standarized reading tests. By 1985, the ratio was two out of three.

Clark says that Eastside still has a way to go. He estimates that just half the students graduate in four years, about the same percentage at other inner-city schools. Clark says, however, his students must earn diplomas.

'I say black and Hispanics kids must become productive. We (as a society) aren't turning out (black and hispanic) doctors, lawyers, engineers -- people who will be consequential to society. We let them get away with too much.

'If students have something to give fine. If not, I don't need them. If they become leeches here, parasites here, they are going to become leeches and parasites in society. You have to work for what you want in society.'

Many say Eastside needed a Joe Clark.

In 1979, a prosecutor's report labeled the school a 'caldron of terror and violence.' Drugs were dealt in stairwells. Students packed knifes and extorted money from classmates. Teachers were scared to walk hallways.

A vice principal was suspected of being involved in a prostitution ring. A security guard was charged with selling drugs. On opening day in 1981, a students stabbed a security guard.

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On any given day, a third of the students were no shows. Half the tenth graders were functionally illiterate. Chaos reigned.

In spring 1982, City School Superintendent Frank Napier requested volunteers from his 80 administrators to become Eastside's principal. Joe Clark, then principal of a city elementary school, was the only one to step forward to take the $60,000 per year post.

'It could kill you professionally,' Napier warned.

'It can't kill me. I can handle it,' Clark replied.

Clark implemented a plan of action. It spelled out specific areas of responsiblity for teachers, adminstrators and students -- ranging from a clean-cut dress code to hard-nosed discipline.

The school was throughly cleaned. Vice principals were replaced. A new security force was hired. Students received a bulletin that welcomed them to school and that outlined 'do's' and 'don't.'

Daily announcements extolled accomplishments of productive students and condemned unruly ones. Parents of failing students were asked to come to school for a conference. Teachers were told to upgrade course offerings.

Clark also began a campaign to rid Eastside of incompetent teachers he called 'lollipops.' He visited classes daily, evaluating teachers.

One day, he watched a teacher holding a vocabulary book write the words 'adroit,' 'facade,' and 'erroneous' on a blackboard and ask if any student could define them. None could. Clark then asked her to define them. She couldn't either.

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'This is unpardonable,' Clark screamed. 'Leave this school at once.'

Dozens of teachers transferred from Eastside. One charged Clark with assault after he ordered him from the building because he wasn't wearing a tie. The charge was later dropped.

Several teachers sued Clark, some even causing them mental anxiety.

Current teachers and administrators praise Clark, and along with some parents and clergymen, have begun a 'Joe Clark Legal Defense Fund.'

Frank Colvin, a physical education teacher, said: 'Before Joe Clark got here, there wasn't much education at Eastside. Kids were in fear of their safety, teachers were in fear of their safety.

'Now you can walk the halls without having to look over your shoulder. In the old days, if you were a teacher in Paterson and you messed up, the school would threaten to transfer you to Eastside. Now teachers want to come to Eastside. They say, 'If there is an opening, let me know.''

In Clark's first year at Eastside, he banished 300 students with long records of suspension and discipline, and began what has been a frustrating push to get the city to expand alternative education programs for disruptive students.

Three years ago, the school board, in a city referendum, was made an autonomous elected body no longer appointed by the mayor. Since then, it has tried to impose controls on Clark, who had long had a near free reign.

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Clark denies any wrongdoing. 'I work within the parameters, but I stretch the hell out of those parameters. The role of the principal should be extended and principals should be held more accountable.'

'If they aren't producing they should be fired,' Clark says. 'The ones who should be fired are the ones who send kids who can't read to high school.'

Education Secretary William Bennett, also a Clark backer, said in a broadcast interview, 'Sometimes you need a 'Mr. Chips.' Sometimes you need a 'Dirty Harry.''

Albert Rowe is a member of the City Council and pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. 'I'm pro-Clark and I'm pro-student. I don't think any student should be expelled without due process.

'Mr. Clark has created an environment where students can learn. But the board has the responsibility to see that he follows the rules. They let him get away with things far too many times.'

In response, Clark just said, 'Let him run his church. I'll run my school.'

He then sighed and said, 'I believe in getting the most out of yourself .... I want people to say at one point, 'Joe Clark came through here and contributed to the overall evolution of mankind.''

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