The Pride of Napoleon Lewis

A veteran principal brought hope and self-respect to South Dallas' Lincoln High. But even some of his loyal followers say it's time for him to step down.

He stepped into the job of principal at Lincoln High in 1980 and went straight to work. He abolished all remedial classes, pressured teachers to take a more active role in their students' education, and created an Afrocentric environment that would envelop the students in a cocoon of support. "All children can learn" was his motto, and he never deviated from it, not once.

Lewis was a taskmaster who never gave the teachers a break. You either believed his children could learn, or you didn't. If you didn't, you needed to leave.

He ran the school with that philosophy for more than 15 years, and people took notice. The walls of Lincoln High are covered with commendations awarded to Lewis by numerous organizations and agencies, recognizing him as a front-runner in the education of inner-city black children. (Lincoln's 1,300-member student body is overwhelmingly black; only three whites, seven Hispanics, and three Asian-Americans were enrolled during the 1995-'96 school year.)

Lewis, it turned out, was just the man to tackle a school like Lincoln. And he acquired his reputation for toughness and effectiveness through sheer force of personality.

"He went out and became an instant hero," says Robbie Collins, special assistant to DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery. "Those kids don't mess with him. He'll catch the thugs out on the schoolyard, and that old man will go out there and tear into them. He's just crazy enough as he needs to be to keep order in that school."

But, as the years passed, district officials learned that Lewis' presence would not be a panacea for all the problems at the inner-city school, Collins says. "It's a complex school. It has all the dynamics of an urban school: potential violence, guns, drugs, gangs--Crips, Bloods--racial conflicts, teachers who think that a hard-nosed black principal is a reversed racist, and a principal and staff out there that think if you show fear of the kids you're a racist, and that they can't depend on you."

DISD officials strongly supported Lewis' decision to return to Lincoln for another year, and last April gladly tore up his resignation letter.

"He is known as Papa Bear to students and parents for his firm yet understanding way of working with people," said district spokesman Dahlander in a prepared statement. "And while it is unfortunate some individuals will come forward to discredit an administrator of his stature, this district stands 100 percent behind Dr. Lewis."

Even so, district insiders say DISD has no choice but to put on a happy face--as any move to oust the senior principal might constitute age discrimination.

In other words, Lewis goes when he wants to.

Napoleon Lewis had been assigned to Lincoln for about a week when he called his first fire drill.

The year was 1980, and the procedure was simple: Teachers and students filed out of classrooms in an orderly fashion and knelt in the hallways, pressing their faces to the point where the wall met the floor. Then the 6-foot, 5-inch principal came striding up to inspect.

"The students were in the right position, but the teachers were [standing] up looking around," recalls teacher Jerry Chambers. "Dr. Lewis came around the corner and yelled, 'What the hell are ya'll doing? Get down!' We all dropped to our knees so fast. Here I was with my head to the floor, and I remember telling the lady next to me, 'I think this may be the strong leader we were looking for.'"

Chambers, a cherubic man with a gentle demeanor, has been teaching at Lincoln High since 1969. He was there when DISD wouldn't provide the simplest tools for the black student body, when most every course was remedial, and when black history didn't even exist as part of the district's curriculum. "We had very, very low self-esteem in those early days," Chambers says. "Low morale, problem after problem. Before Dr. Lewis came, we were on the bottom. Now, we're right up there at the top."

Chambers says Lincoln has a lot to thank Lewis for--the man seemed born to fit the job. Even today, Lewis, a former college basketball and football player, is surprisingly robust despite having been diagnosed with cancer several years ago. He actually appears 20 years younger than his 75 years, and although his voice does not hold the same forceful bass timbre that it used to, his is still a commanding presence.

Lewis earned his stripes as an educator in Washington, D.C., where he moved up the ranks in the public school system after having earned a doctoral degree in education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1977, he retired as regional superintendent in Washington and moved to Dallas. After three years as a DISD administrator, he garnered the challenging Lincoln High post.

At the time, Lincoln was undergoing a failed integration attempt. In 1980, the district replaced the old school building with a modern structure, and Lincoln became the site for the district's humanities and communications magnet program. But the magnet failed to draw whites; the few whites who did attend stopped coming after a few days.

During Lewis' first year at Lincoln, 25 teachers asked to be transferred from the school, an unusually high number even for one of DISD's toughest inner-city schools. Their departure, Lewis has said, proved their lack of commitment to teaching black children.

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