Principal Strives to Heal " the Hurt" at North
by Tina Griego
October 28, 2004
It will be a long time before the teachers of North High School forget the 2002-2003 school year and the brief but troubled reign of Dr. Offie Hobbs.
For that matter, it'll be a long time before Hobbs forgets them.
Hobbs came from Milwaukee. He was hired by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Wartgow to replace Wendy Lanier, who took over Henry Middle School, and who, a year earlier, had replaced longtime North Principal Joe Sandoval, who became an area superintendent.
To put it another way: If you had come to North in 2000, Hobbs would have been your third principal in three years.
I remember the 2002-2003 school year because not long after it ended and Hobbs was reassigned, my neighborhood paper, the North Denver Tribune, delivered an issue containing a full-page ad calling for his reinstatement and for the transfer of 20 teachers who "consistently oppose progressive change."
It was the year the News ran a story quoting Jeff Young, the cross-country coach who paid for the ad, saying that Hobbs got into trouble because he was "basically overturning too many rocks that had a lot of slime on them."
It was the year the staff and surrounding community fell into camps, pro- and anti-Hobbs, and, to some, these divisions took on racial overtones, partly because Hobbs is African-American, partly because some saw Hobbs as a champion for minority students. Teachers cried at their dinner tables and in their cars and some stopped speaking to one another.
It was not a good year.
To his supporters both inside and outside the school, Hobbs was a welcome hurricane, a powerhouse willing to rattle cages to turn around a school in academic trouble. He demanded to know what teachers were doing in their classes and required copies of their lesson plans. He amped up classroom observation to the point some teachers felt it bordered on intimidation. In the eyes of many, he was nothing but a bully, vindictive and unpredictable.
It is safe to conclude that communication was not Hobbs' forte. His style, even his supporters will admit, was more dictator than diplomat, and he rammed headfirst into one of the strongest union shops in all of Denver Public Schools.
In the end, the superintendent decided to transfer not just Hobbs but four of his biggest critics on the teaching staff and a longtime administrative assistant. The five staff members and the union filed a lawsuit against Hobbs, Wartgow and the Board of Education. It's now pending in federal district court. Hobbs, now principal of Emily Griffith High School, declined comment.
The North community he left behind was a fractured and politicized place. It was "ruined," one teacher said. An atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust settled upon a school that already was teetering academically.
Into this stepped Darlene LeDoux.
A need to reunite school community
At the time, LeDoux was an assistant superintendent in charge of community partnerships for DPS. She had returned to the district in 2002 after more than 10 years with Cherry Creek Schools.
As the 2002-2003 school year progressed, the "North problem" became more pressing. At high-level district meetings, the question was raised: "Who could straighten this out?" LeDoux, one of the people sitting at the table, thought: "I could do it."
LeDoux was born in Denver, the daughter of a baker and a lunchroom worker. She says she was always something of an "overachiever." I'd say that's something of an understatement. She and her four siblings were the first generation in her family to graduate from high school - LeDoux is a South graduate - and three of them received their master's degrees. In 1995, LeDoux became part of a small club in this country when she earned her doctorate. Only a fraction of Hispanics advances this far academically.
She set her sights on education, majoring in special education with an emphasis in bilingual education. (LeDoux was one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in comprehensive bilingual education in DPS.) She started as a first-grade teacher in Brighton 26 years ago, but eight years later made the jump to administration and was on her way up the ladder.
LeDoux was principal at five elementary schools in eight years and then became director of human resources for Cherry Creek Schools. Along the way, she earned a reputation as a problem-solver and a leader.
"She was bright, responsive, a hard worker," says Cherry Creek Schools Assistant Superintendent Steve McGrath, who has known LeDoux for many years. "Sixty-hour weeks were not uncommon. The other thing is that she can draw a hard line. She does it with kindness, but when she needs to, she does it."
Wartgow eventually did ask LeDoux to take the job. She has, he said, a "positive, outgoing leadership style," something he felt was crucial.
"We needed someone to come in and bring the community together both inside and outside the school," he says.
Just go for a year, he told her. Settle things down. Get the place functioning again. You can keep your assistant superintendent position and we'll put you on special assignment.
LeDoux went to her husband, René Renter'a, and two daughters, both of whom are Kennedy High School students. "My oldest daughter said, 'Oh, Mom, you can help the kids at North.'"
LeDoux pauses, her eyes watering. "I said, 'But I'm not going to be with you.' She said, 'That's OK, Mom. We know where you are.' They've been very supportive. If I have one heartbreak, it is always wondering whether I'm being a good enough mama."
This is a rare, unguarded moment with LeDoux. She has been wary of my presence in her building. I am the X factor wandering the halls and LeDoux is not a person comfortable with variables. She is also sensitive to - and quite weary of - the lingering public perception of North as nothing but a bad school. I am a member of "the media," and these days little else need be said.
LeDoux is focused, driven and no-nonsense. "I'm honest and upfront. I may not say it the way you want to hear it, but I don't have time for ambiguity. We don't have time. North is at the bubble of low and unsatisfactory. We have to turn it around."
"A lot of people would ask, 'why take the North job?' " I tell her. "You have it made. You're an assistant superintendent. You've worked hard. Why come to North?"
LeDoux shakes her head. "See," she says forcefully, "that's the perception I'm trying to change. Why wouldn't I come to North? Why wouldn't I come to a school where students deserve all the same opportunities as students in other schools? Why wouldn't I come to a community that cares so much? Why wouldn't I want to come to a place that has so much potential?"
Overcoming cynicism, distrust
Still, she was not prepared for the depth of anger and mistrust she encountered upon her arrival, "the hurt," she calls it. What is true of any corporation in which leadership is constantly churning is true of a school. Staff becomes wary, cynical, resistant. Employees cross their arms and lean back in their chairs and say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, and in a year you'll be gone and I'll still be here."
In Hobbs' wake are teachers who still register a tremor of paranoia when an administrator steps into their classroom, teachers who still refuse to speak to one another. Has all this affected students? The lawsuit is rife with charges that it did. It accuses Hobbs of protecting a staff member - now gone - accused of sexually harassing students. It says he humiliated both students and teachers. He has denied all those charges. What is clear is that tension suffused the building for months.
What is also true, however, is that a school building can be a remarkably isolated place. A teacher can enter a classroom and close the door and the rest of the world disappears. Many teachers at North, choosing neither side, did just that.
It was LeDoux's task to set the boat straight. It didn't take her long to realize that one year would not be enough.
"They needed stability," she says. "They needed someone to believe in them. My parents taught me, 'You don't ever give up on something you believe in.' I have to do what I think I am supposed to do in life, help kids, advocate for them, have high expectations of them. I couldn't leave."
Now almost halfway through her second year, she is trying to decide whether to stay for a third.
"Every day, I don't know if my career could be derailed, if everything I've worked for could go up in smoke, but I come in here every day to do my best. I want the same for the kids at North as I want for my kids."
When she took the job, Wartgow told her that she could pick her own assistant principals. Start fresh, he said.
She knew what she wanted. People with positive attitudes, who would support teachers, believe in students, be good role models and who would offer absolutely, positively no excuse for failure.
Call Tina Griego at 303-892-2699 or griegot@RockyMountainNews.com.