As a youth, I remember hearing my father say, “There are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.” For a long time I didn’t fully understand what he was saying. One event finally brought it home to me.
I became the principal at an alternative school. The students at the school were there because they had gotten into some kind of trouble in regular school or they needed some other environment in which to succeed. Most were involved in gang activities or were either taking or dealing in drugs. Some had committed some felony offense, such as the possession of a prohibited weapon on campus, whose mandatory penalty was removal to an alternative education setting.
There were fights. Drugs were smuggled onto the campus sometimes in the hems of their clothing. Cheating was rampant. The abusive language, to me, was intolerable. Some students were rude and threatening not only to their peers but to the teachers and staff. I set my mind to ameliorating the situation.
One particular student was sent to my office for possession of a controlled substance. I was told that the possession and use of drugs was habitual with him and that he was in the office repeatedly for that and for related gang activity. I asked the secretary for his disciplinary file. She handed me an empty folder with his name on it.
“Where are all the office referrals?” I asked. She informed me that the previous administrator kept no records. A copy of each disciplinary form had to be sent to the Central Office along with a monthly summary report. He had not wanted to do that.
In order to help each student and to bring to bear needed resources, I felt it was important to document his or her record of behavior. In some cases, where the parents had to be called in, they would challenge my decisions because I had no “previous record” of any violations of school policy.
I informed the staff that each time a student was referred to the office, there was to be a disciplinary form duly filled out, dated and signed. A report, then, would be forwarded to Central Office as per district policy.
It wasn’t long before I was in hot water. According to Central Office statistics, my predecessor must have run a tight ship. There were few recorded fights, drug busts, confiscated weapons, use of vulgar or obscene language, etc. Under my administration, however, the statistics implied that the school had quickly spun out of control.
The only thing that had changed was the record-keeping.
I believed then and I still do, that one way to help those kids was to keep a record, not to punish, but to save. How badly did I want to keep that job? Quite a lot, actually. I found that I really enjoyed working with that population of young people. I held the belief that most, if not all, could be salvaged. Should I cover up what was really happening in order to keep the position?
Wendell J. Ashton had a friend who said, “You know, they say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But I have always gone after the two in the bush. Is it not true,” he said, “that too often too many of us seek the safety of security instead of the adventure of the unknown? We cling fast to the bird in the hand. And the tighter and longer we cling, the more we squeeze courage and creativity from our lives. The gray of fear moves in and rosy wonder fades.”*
Compared to other assignments I had during my career, my stay at the alternative school was relatively short-lived. I have always felt that it was the statistics that got me. Some folks simply do not want to know what is really happening or else they prefer to hide the truth.
Sometimes we have to stand on principle. My next assignments proved invaluable to me. I like to think that, to some degree, I grew in wisdom and understanding with each one. I learned that sometimes we just have to let go of the bird in the hand.
There are more than two birds in the bush. The numbers are unlimited. Happy is the man or woman who pursues them.
*”Birds in the Bush,” Instructor, September 1964.
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