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June 18, 2012

In less than two years at North High, Denise Wren restores discipline, improves test scores (2005)

(Editor's Note: This was first published Feb. 20, 2005)

After Denise Wren took over one of Wichita's toughest high schools, she did more with less. A lot more. Math and reading test scores rose. Writing scores jumped 14 percentage points.

The graduation rate rose.

Teachers and staff members at North High School hadn't believed her when she said she'd turn around test scores and lax discipline. They'd heard this sort of thing before.

But they believe her now.

As North's new principal, Wren made good things happen despite taking over in fall 2003, in the middle of three years of spending cuts.

She did it though North has more than 1,600 students.

Though North is Wichita's most racially diverse school.

Though 72 percent of North's students are poor, up from 68 percent her first year.

Though 300 of North's students speak Hindi, or Spanish, or Vietnamese rather than English as a first language.

Though discipline, in the words of teachers and the chief security guard, had become "a joke" before she arrived.

She suspended students 666 times in her first year, sent them home for at least a day. She expelled 48. She cleared hallways of slackers and sent them to classrooms, or to her office for a chewing out.

Students say she turned North into a real school. One student said Wren turned North into a prison, and that it was a good thing.

Truancy went down, from 31 percent to 20 percent.

Teacher morale went way up. Students, even some slackers and troublemakers, say their morale went up.

One other thing went way up: Wren's sense of shame. About our schools, she says, we ought to be ashamed. -- -- -- In the summer of 2003, Wren met with North High's senior security guard.

She told Chunk Stevenson she wanted to bring discipline back to North.

Stevenson shrugged.

"OK," he said.

He'd heard this before.

Stevenson is 6-foot-1 and weighs 273 pounds. A considerable portion of his bulk is spread through the muscle of his neck, shoulders and upper back.

After 16 years, he's a legend at North: He growls at students, but hugs them, too. He's easily the most popular person on the campus, including with students he's dragged by the arm to the principal's office.

Arm-dragging is his last resort. A father himself, he builds relationships, learns the names, the nicknames, the handshakes and the interests of most students every year.

In recent years, he thought he'd lost control at North.

The school administration seemed reluctant to discipline students. Conseque nces had disappeared. No consequences, no order.

Now Stevenson sat with the new principal, who said she wanted consequences.

Stevenson shrugged.

She read disbelief in his eyes.

They parted.

She did not try to persuade him.

And she did not tell him one other thing: how frightened she felt.

As the two of them got ready for the 2003-04 school year, she went home on some nights feeling scared, alone, nervous. She wanted to cry.

She had a plan.

She thought maybe it would blow up in her face. -- -- -- Several students at North High School knew what Wren would do.

One was Adrian Love. He had attended Pleasant Valley Middle School, where Wren had been principal before she took over North.

Love told friends:

"The party at North is over."

The friends just laughed.

"You'll see," Love said. -- -- -- The first full day of school, the new principal convened an assembly of freshmen.

She gave an unusual instruction to teachers: "Find me a sacrificial lamb."

Then she stood up and began to talk about school rules.

Some kids ignored her and kept talking.

A teacher pointed to one of the talkers.

"Sacrificial lamb," Wren thought.

Teachers told the talkative student to stand up.

They escorted him to the principal's office.

The assembly room got quiet.

Wren and the teachers then convened the sophomores.

Then the juniors.

The seniors.

They marched a sacrificial lamb out of every assembly.

The room got quiet every time. -- -- -- One week before those assemblies, while Wren plotted to find sacrificial lambs, sophomore English teacher Kathy Whepley received a shocking diagnosis.

Doctors said her daughter, Erin, 7, had a neuroblastoma - cancer.

In the middle of that day, a visitor came to the hospital.

It was Denise Wren.

"Whatever you need to do, you do it," Wren told Whepley. "Don't worry about work. I'll back you in whatever you need to do."

Then she left.

In the coming months, stories would spread about Wren going out of her way to help teachers like Whepley, to reach out to them as a human being as well as a boss.

Whepley remembers little about that day, except shock.

And a moment of gratitude.

"She barely knows me," Whepley thought.

And yet she came. -- -- -- Back at North, Wren put a plan into action.

When she'd toured the school the previous spring, she could hardly believe the hallways: a hundred students hanging out during classes, skipping class.

It ticked her off.

She learned that teachers like Dwayne Schmidt had given up going into hallways to try to stop disturbances. He'd come close to giving up trying to maintain order in his math classes. When there is no discipline, there is no order. Not even with Chunk Stevenson walking hallways.

But Wren had a plan, though Stevenson hadn't believed her.

She bought walkie-talkies for teachers, organized hall duty. Teachers not in class would walk halls. She would walk halls.

On the first day at school, she did what Adrian Love had warned friends she would do.

She told Chunk Stevenson and the teachers to clear the halls immediately.

And they did. -- -- -- Chunk realized he'd sold this woman short.

He had not believed her. But from the first day of school he watched her walk rapidly through the hall with a quick, forward-leaning, stoop-shouldered stride. He knew her story now, as she knew his. She was born in 1960, a Wichita kid, her mother a teacher. She was a West High grad, a Kansas State grad. Soft-spoken until she saw disrespect.

Stevenson noticed she learned teachers' and students' first names.

Dwayne Schmidt saw that she listened carefully. She stopped Whepley in the halls, asked how Erin was coping with chemotherapy. She asked what Whepley thought about North. "What are our shortcomings?"

Once, when a soda got spilled in a hall, Chunk saw her find a mop and clean it up herself.

She sat in on classes. She pounced on students for talking on cell phones. One day, she caught a student holding his cell phone under his desk, tapping out text messages to help another kid cheat on a test. She took the phone.

She threatened to ban cell phones from North.

When she encountered a belligerent student, she would stand up straight, call for help on the radio, and speak icy words that cut through belligerent sass. Teachers watched her humble tough boys with tough words.

That, or she sent them home. She brought most of them back, tried then to quiet them with quiet talk.

"Do not think you can determine or diminish the education of others," she told them. -- -- -- Students and teachers said Wren raised scores first by making the place safer and quieter. Then she dealt directly with academics. She met with teachers, in groups and one-on-one. She encouraged them to press for higher achievement.

Then she and teacher Stacie Valdez asked some minority and some slacker white students to take Advanced Placement and honors classes.

Some of these students didn't want to.

"Kids will do what they are expected to do," Wren told teachers.

Wren put 64 additional students in the AP classes.

A lot of them did well.

All this work paid off.

Test scores rose.

But some rose more than others. -- -- -- Last fall, in her second year, Wren confronted the achievement gap between black and white students.

On average, black students score far lower on achievement tests than white students, at North and nationally. It's touchy: Few people dare discuss it lightly.

It became Wren's biggest disappointment. Black students improved their scores somewhat on math and writing, though they still lagged behind other students. On reading, they made no progress. By Christmas 2004, nearly 61 percent of whites and 44 percent of Hispanics had learned to read adequately. But only 18 percent of blacks had.

Wren convened small groups of black students and told them about the disparity in test scores. She asked, "Why do you think this happens?"

Ashley Ofuokwu, a 16-year-old junior who worked on the student newspaper, sat back in surprise.

"I had no idea," she told Wren.

She felt embarrassed. She told Wren maybe black kids would try harder if they knew.

Wren told her she ought to research a story about it for the school paper.

So Ashley did. -- -- -- At a recent noon hour, Wren gathered nine black North High students and served them pizza and Pepsi. She told them to answer an Eagle reporter's questions about her and North High in any way they saw fit.

Then she walked out.

The kids talked all at once.

It was impossible to match nine names to nine voices, but the quotes tumbled out as follows, with the reporter's questions in italics: "What happened here after Ms. Wren took over?"

"She turned this place into a prison."

"Was that a good thing?"



"D-- straight it was a good thing."

"We went from being a party school to being a school."

"There used to be fights every day."

"Now we hardly ever see fights."

"Did kids do their schoolwork better because of the discipline?"

"You kidding? Yeah."

"So the grades went up?"

"Yeah. Everybody tried harder, and she kicked some of the slackers out."

"Do you like her?"


"Well . . . mostly."

"She treats people like people."

"It's still not all good here."

"What do you mean?"

"They're too hard on people here."

"What do you mean?"

"The teachers think you're in a gang if you just show up. One different kind of handshake can get you kicked out of school."

"Well, come on, man, if you know that's the situation, then why do a new handshake?"

"Why should I have to stop and think about a handshake?"

"Because a handshake is not worth it."

"OK. What was your reaction when Ms. Wren told all of you that black student achievement is not nearly as high as white achievement?"


"I had no idea." "I was really embarrassed. It made me want to try harder."

"I always blew off those tests because I didn't care. But I'll never blow off those tests again. It's embarrassing."

"Why do you think black achievement isn't as high?"

"Because people don't try hard enough."

"Hey, come on! There are all sorts of kids here who have to take care of other kids at home, who have all sorts of situations at home before they even get to school. It's hard."

"So what are you saying? That white people don't have issues too?"

"They do have issues! I'm just saying it's not all about people not trying hard!"

"OK, slow down. Tell me again, why do you think black achievement isn't as high?"

"I told you, because people don't try hard enough. I'm a slacker myself, and I'm telling you, you don't hear a lot of black people saying they want to be a doctor or a lawyer. You hear them say they want to play basketball. They want to be a rapper. You don't ever hear me or anyone say we want to be somebody's veterinarian."

"Yeah." "Maybe we should."

"But I don't want to be a veterinarian."

"Was it OK with all of you when she brought up the achievement thing, and put it out there for all to see?"

"She wanted us to see why we need to try harder."

"Yeah." (Voices in chorus.)

-- -- -- But about Wren's sense of shame: Shame is what she feels, what she says we should all feel.

Some of her achievements feel hollow, she says.

Her white students raised their reading proficiency from 48.7 percent in 2002 to a more acceptable 60.9 percent this year. But what that means is that 39.1 percent of all white North students are not reading adequately.

And what good is it to raise white reading proficiency to 60.9 percent, when black proficiency is 18.2? That means 81.8 percent of blacks at North cannot read proficiently.

That's embarrassing, she says. We should all feel embarrassed.

She says she will try harder.

But her embarrassment goes beyond student achievement. She is afraid public schools have been abandoned, by the Legislature, by business.

The schools need help, she says. They need money, and volunteers. They need people and businesses to talk to the Legislature.

It's a myth and a lie that the schools have enough money, she says.

No one who says that has stepped inside a school or looked into school finances or into classrooms recently, she says. In five years, everything's changed.

The smartest businesses in Wichita, she says, are the aircraft companies. And all of them - Boeing, Cessna, Raytheon - give millions to local public schools.

Other businesses in town, including some near North, do a lot to help schools directly.

But a lot of other businesses don't get it, she says. Kids are not only an expense. They are an investment in the future of business. But most businesses have stayed silent as the Legislature has failed to spend enough on schools, she says.

She doesn't get that.

"Of all people, they have a reason to help us," she said. "It's not like they don't know what's going on, with our deficiencies in math and reading. They know the quality of people who apply at their workplaces. Why aren't they helping us? Our kids are their future."

She might have to cut phys ed this year. Or music. Or both.

It's embarrassing, she says. She grew up in this town.

She says next year she will try to do more.

She says she'll probably do it with less.

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