Roxanne Cheek left Woodrow Wilson High School to be principal at Richardson’s Aikin Elementary this week after leading the East Dallas High School for one year.
Cheek followed Steven Ewing, who also departed for the suburbs after one year as principal of Woodrow. Before Ewing, Micheal Dang was the principal in the summer of 2016 for less than a month. Before him, Kyle Richardson led the school for five years.
“It has been an incredible experience to be a part of this esteemed organization and participate in the long-standing traditions as well as work with the community in building a vision for the future of Woodrow,” Cheek wrote in a letter to the students and families.
For the Wildcat class of 2019, students will have a different principal for each year of high school.
By most measures, Woodrow is a great school. The rigorous IB program is heralded and is being expanded to numerous campuses throughout the district and feeder pattern. The engineering program prepares students for cutting edge careers and helps run a state championship robotics team, the business and hospitality academies give students tax preparation experience and sets them up with internships in the business world and the fine arts academy produces professional quality musicals and dance programs. And yet the high-performing school cannot seem to keep a principal.
Has this been a string of hires who have all had specific and personal reasons for leaving Woodrow, or is there a larger issue? With all the success, is Woodrow an example of how little a principal actually matters? Is there a larger issue that makes this school especially difficult?
Keith Black taught English and Theory of Knowledge in the IB program at Woodrow for more than a decade, and is heading to law school at the University of North Texas-Dallas next fall. He noted the difficulty of running a school with such an active parent and alumni base in a Title 1 school with slow-moving bureaucracy. The juxtaposition of students with all the challenges that poverty imposes and others whose parents are lawyers and doctors makes for a unique mix that is not always easy to navigate.
“Balancing between those two worlds takes a special person,” he says. “And it’s not going to be easy to find that person.”
Black was a bit shocked at Cheek’s departure, as she had not withdrawn at the end of the year as others had in the past. He noted the importance of being in the hallways and greeting students and teachers, which he said Cheek didn’t do as well as principals in the past. But overall, he said she had good ideas and there was no leadership vacuum.
“Give it a few more years and I think she had the potential to be an excellent Woodrow principal,” he says.
Black also highlighted the shifting nature of DISD’s central administration, which has restructured leadership several times recently. “They are all jockeying for the next promotion as opposed to doing their job well and being satisfied,” he says.
“We need to find a person that is proud of being Woodrow and proud of being at Woodrow — where that’s their career objective.”
Brennan Blair is a Woodrow alum who now has children at Lipscomb Elementary, where Cheek was principal for five years. She had nothing but great things to say about Cheek, who she described as warm but tough. She wonders if Cheek was pushed into the role of Woodrow principal a bit before she was ready, but had confidence that Cheek could do the job. For Blair, the fact that Cheek was expecting a second child and that Aikin was closer to her house was more of the reason behind the move.
Blair says she is embarrassed and disappointed as an alum to see the frequent turnover, and notes the similar problems experienced at Lakewood Elementary, where she attended. The turnover at Dallas ISD’s central office has also been a factor. The executive director position has changed several times in the last year. “My hope is that we will not keep doing the same thing,” she says.
Marcia Phillips is an alum and Lipscomb parent who was hoping her son would eventually go to Woodrow where she would again cross paths with Cheek. She says Cheek was committed and a great leader, and though she was sad to see her leave, it never occurred to her to vilify Cheek, as some have done on social media following the announcement of her departure. “It is revolting to see people making blatantly racist comments,” she says of comments made online.
Phillips also highlighted the turnover at Lakewood Elementary. “When you see the turnover at Lakewood Elementary, you see what the common denominator is,” she says.
Phillips says Woodrow is an amazing school and the negativity washes away all the great things the school does. She remembers similar vitriol when Danielle Petters was discussed as moving from principal at J.L. Long to Woodrow. Petters, a Woodrow alum as well, ended up at Spruce High School, where she earned principal of the year honors this year.
“My friends are laughing at how we have it made in the shade,” Phillips says. “We have a great school and there is still so much negativity.”
“When you look at Woodrow, you see these paintings of these principals and their tenures at that school,” he says. “We stopped doing that. We stopped hanging pictures at Woodrow because it’s pointless. We are going to paint a portrait of you after a year?”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.