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.

Indeed, Lewis wasn't fazed by the loss of faculty members. He called down a blizzard of changes and made numerous demands. He set up after-school study programs that involved both teachers and parents, and he leaned on the district to provide more resources for the school. He harangued the students about their education, often challenging them to excel to disprove white prejudices about black children.

In many cases his approach worked, and Lincoln produced some high-achieving students. During the 1995-'96 school year, in fact, Lincoln students won more than $1 million in college scholarships; graduating senior Tandy Carraway received full scholarship offers from five universities totaling more than $150,000. Fellow senior Tameka Henry won a comparable amount, including full scholarship offers from Florida A&M, Clark Atlanta University, and Illinois Institute of Technology.

Former Dean of Instruction Juanita Wallace recalls being bowled over when she first walked into Lincoln in 1993.

"I thought it was the most wonderful place I had ever been," she says. "Next to heaven. The staff was warm and giving, and the student body was absolutely marvelous. You can talk to a 6-foot young man and he respects you."

The children were enormously talented in a number of disciplines, Wallace found, and Lewis seemed uncommonly adept at encouraging creativity among the students.

Wallace was also impressed with Lewis' dedication to the children and the efforts he was making to improve their scholastic achievements--and especially their self-esteem. Lewis required the teachers and administrators to seek out material on black history and black contributions to American society, which had long been excluded from mainstream textbooks. He denounced Eurocentric views of world history and filled the libraries with books written by, for, and about African-Americans. If the children were to believe they could achieve, they had to see themselves achieving, he said.

Wallace could not have agreed more. "The white books, for the most part, ignored African-American contributions," she says. "And that was part of the problem. Oftentimes, thanks to the European histories, our children only got to see us as slaves. At Lincoln, they learned we were kings and queens, and that we have achieved great and enduring things despite our struggles. So the kids at Lincoln had healthy egos, and sometimes they were a little arrogant. But better that they be arrogant than depressed and feeling lowly about themselves."

Lincoln, by Lewis' design, was also the only school to require that seniors take the SAT and ACT tests twice. Lewis insisted that Lincoln become a testing site for the two college entrance exams, believing that if the tests were administered closer to home, the students would understand their importance.

Still, Lewis presided over his share of problems at Lincoln. Racial tensions were always a part of the atmosphere at the school. Black administrators, hardened by years of inequities, were sometimes unsympathetic to white teachers' complaints. (During the 1995-'96 school year, according to district officials, Lincoln had 42 black teachers and one Hispanic teacher, with the remaining 19 classified as "other"--but officials declined to say how many were white.)

Wallace tried to reconcile differences between the black administration and white teachers, but her personal philosophy rejected any claims that white teachers could be victims of racism at the black high school.

"They often felt that we were prejudiced," she says. "But prejudice is the way you feel; discrimination is what you do. Our skin color does not give us the power to discriminate, so really there is no basis for their statements."

Wallace also shared her black peers' views on the relationship between white teachers and black students. "It is difficult for white teachers to relate to the black students," she says. "If you are not a part of the culture, it takes more effort to understand where the kids are coming from. It is not impossible, but it takes effort, and if people are not willing to make the effort, then yes, there will be problems."

Lincoln faculty members also battled the problems seemingly endemic to inner-city public schools.

In the early 1990s, in fact, Lincoln's truancy rate was the highest in the district, and school administrators had no idea where most of those students were. When Wallace and Jerry Chambers started delving into the truancy lists, however, they found that several students listed as truant had actually died, many in gang violence. Some were sitting in jail. (If a student was in jail, the school would not count them as truant.)

Wallace and Chambers recall walking door to door among the area's housing projects, hunting down errant students and literally transporting them back to class. Often they would see students standing idle on street corners. They'd order them into their car and many times would walk them into the principal's office to apply for GED training. The initiative was a great success, and by 1994, Wallace says, Lincoln had one of the better attendance rates in the district. Other schools, like South Dallas' Madison High School, would copy the initiative.

Even today, Principal Lewis takes the time to drive through the tattered neighborhood projects, looking for truants. "He said, 'What are we going to do about these black boys?'" Chambers says. "He said, 'We can't just give them up.'"

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