Clark, Joe 1939—
Joe Clark 1939—
Public school administrator
Principal Joe Clark came into the national spotlight in the late 1980s for his controversial methods of management at Eastside High, an inner-city school in Paterson, New Jersey. Symbolized by his familiar bullhorn and Louisville Slugger baseball bat, which he toted as he patrolled the halls of Eastside, Clark maintained an environment of staunch authoritarian discipline at the school, regularly expelling what he called “parasites”: students who were disruptive, truant, or “hoodlums, thugs and pathological deviants.”
Clark’s drastic methods have won him the support and admiration of many students and teachers and the public praise of President Ronald Reagan, who said Clark represented the tough leadership necessary to manage inner-city schools in crisis. Numerous critics and educators, however, have denounced Clark’s autocratic hardline methods of dealing with students and have questioned the real benefits of his law-and-order approach to education. Clark’s struggle to restore order at Eastside became “a kind of allegory for all the tribulations, dangers and scattered triumphs of cities large and small, where public education is undergoing its most severe challenge,” wrote Ezra Brown in a Time cover story on the celebrated principal. Clark emerged as “the touchstone of a rekindled national debate about how to put things right in a city schoolhouse gone wrong.”
Clark was appointed principal of Eastside in 1982. A twenty-year veteran of the Paterson school district, Clark had previously been principal at PS 6, a troubled inner-city grammar school, which he transformed into what people referred to as the “Miracle on Carroll Street.” Eastside, a predominantly black and Hispanic high school with a student body numbering 3,200, had a reputation for violence and incompetence in a district that state officials once listed as on the verge of “educational bankruptcy.” According to Clark in his 1989 book Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, “bedlam reigned” at Eastside prior to his arrival. Fighting in school halls and in classrooms was common and weapons had been used against both students and teachers. Drug dealers worked the school daily, both outside and inside the building, and marijuana smoke could often be smelled throughout corridors and in restrooms. Walls and hallways were sprayed throughout with graffiti and broken fencing, windows,
Born May 7, 1939, in Newark, Nj; wife’s name, Hazel; children: Joetta, Joe, Jr., Hazel. Education: Graduate degree from Seton Hall University.
Worked as grade school teacher in Paterson, NJ, and director of camps and playgrounds, Essex County, NJ, c. 1962-late 1970s; principal of PS 6 (elementary school), Paterson, late 1970s-1982; principal of Eastside High School, Paterson, 1982-89; lecturer, 1989—. Has appeared on numerous television programs, including Donahue, Nightline, 60 Minutes, and A Current Affair. Addressed U.S. Senate subcommittee on state of education in the United States. Military service: U.S. Army Reserve sergeant.
Addresses: Home —South Orange, NJ.
doors, and furniture frequently went unrepaired. The educational process at Eastside was equally run-down. Students and teachers worked in a state of perpetual fear, truancy and dropout rates were high, and student academic test scores were among the lowest in the state.
Clark moved quickly to devise a new order for Eastside. He reorganized the administrative structure at the school, replaced officials whom he considered “loafers,” and set up a chain-of-command that clearly defined responsibilities and problem-solving channels. He drew up new student policies, including a rigorous suspension system, student photo identification tags, dress code guidelines, and corridor traffic-flow management. The summer before his first term as principal he coordinated a major renovation of the building itself in order to, as he stated in Laying Down the Law, “have it as a powerful and constant ally to my disciplined program for creating and maintaining an atmosphere conducive to learning.” Broken fences, windows, and door locks were repaired, while security patrols were beefed up to monitor school grounds and keep out drug pushers. Throughout, Clark kept the extent of his plans for transforming Eastside quiet; as he recounted in Laying Down the Law, “too often, an administrator kills or weakens a good plan by telegraphing in advance what he is going to do—instead of just doing it.”
On opening day of his Eastside tenure Clark greeted students with his bullhorn: “I am your new principal, Joe Clark. Mr. Clark to you. This is the new Eastside High School. What was, exists no more. Go to your classrooms. Please walk to the right.” In his first week Clark suspended 300 students for violations of his new suspension code, which encompassed, among other things, verbal and physical assault, vandalism, graffiti, defiance of authority, threatening staff members, the wearing of hats, and tardiness. Over the next few years Clark established a strict and disciplined feeling at Eastside. Suspensions and expulsions were consistently and regularly enforced and became Clark’s way of ridding the school of what he called “leeches, miscreants and hoodlums.” In accordance with his belief that “discipline establishes the format, the environment for academic achievement to occur,” Clark demanded from both students and faculty a uniform adherence to rules and regulations. Students who failed to comply to Clark’s code were suspended; teachers who disagreed with his policies were either dismissed or asked to leave. Clark was a high-profile presence at Eastside, giving daily messages over the public address system, tirelessly patrolling the halls, chatting with students and visiting classrooms, berating teachers he felt weren’t doing their job, and praising those who were. “In this building, everything emanates and ultimates from me,” he was often quoted as saying. “Nothing happens without me.”
Clark’s policies came to national attention in December of 1987 when he expelled over 60 “parasite” students from Eastside. The group included students past the age of 18 who were severely short of credits for graduation and whom Clark felt were an obstacle to the education of others. The Paterson school board voted to draw up insubordination proceedings against Clark, charging that he had suspended students without their right to due process. Clark was also charged with violating fire codes for keeping school exit doors chained, a move he claimed was necessary in order to keep out drug dealers. While many among the Paterson school board wanted to see Clark dismissed as principal, his hard-line efforts at Eastside had won him widespread support throughout the larger community. At a crowded school board meeting in January of 1988 hundreds of parents and students turned up to voice their support for Clark, shouting “Without No Joe, Where Will We Go?” Further support came when a representative of the Reagan administration called to offer Clark a position in the Office of Policy Development, pending the outcome of the school board’s ruling. Clark turned down the offer, saying his job would remain at Eastside. He told the board that by “making allowances for inner-city kids,” they were “making a bunch of parasites out of black and Hispanic kids.” Insubordination proceedings were eventually dropped against Clark and he reinstated some of the expelled students; nonetheless, a formal inquiry was eventually launched into the expulsions.
The expulsions investigation gained national media attention and Clark found himself at the center of a national debate on educational reform of inner-city schools. In addition to his Time cover stint in February of 1988, he made numerous appearances on television talk shows and news programs. U.S. secretary of education William J. Bennett praised Clark’s tough stance, stating, “Sometimes you need Mr. Chips, sometimes you need Dirty Harry.” Philadelphia principal Odetta Dunn Harris in Time commended Clark as “a principal with principles,” adding, “He is trying to develop strong, independent, law-abiding citizens and is trying to provide the students with a safe, secure place to learn, and for this he is going to be nailed to the wall.” Others, however, questioned the concrete benefits of Clark’s reforms and denounced his autocratic approach to education. Los Angeles principal George McKenna stated in Time: “We want to fix the schools, but you don’t do that by seeing the kids as the enemy. Our role is to rescue and be responsible. … If the students were not poor black children, Joe Clark would not be tolerated.”
Professor Irwin A. Hyman in an Education Week article reprinted in Education Digest said that Clark typified “the charismatic authoritarian who offers himself as an answer to social crises…. Most people, he knows, will not complain about the suspension of a few civil liberties of obviously undeserving groups…. For Clark and his followers, the ’enemy’ is teenagers—minority adolescents, in particular.” Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, told Michael Norman in the New York Times that Clark deserved commendation for restoring order to Eastside, but that his policies could result in serious problems:
“You’ve removed the problem from the school system, but you haven’t removed it from society and the whirlwind of that will be catastrophic.” Other critics condemning Clark’s actions pointed out that the expulsions illuminated the urgent need to provide alternative means of education for students who do not fit into the mainstream.
In Laying Down the Law Clark describes his career at Eastside, gives insight into the motivations and objectives behind his policies, and outlines a management plan for other educators. Clark describes how Eastside, like many inner-city schools in the United States, suffered from widespread “ignorance.” Administrators and teachers stood by and tolerated sub-standard academic performance and disruptive behavior, while the futures of students with potential were put in peril. As a result, many black and Hispanic students, who already encounter greater obstacles in society, faced the prospect of losing a crucial opportunity to acquire the skills they need to succeed as adults. The majority of school administrators and bureaucrats are, according to Clark, unable to “see the main issues clearly enough or long enough,” and “take the wrong action, or settle for wrong-headed inaction.” The crux of Clark’s philosophy is his belief in the “fruitlessness of egalitarianism,” embodied in his statement, “You can’t save everybody.” His critics point to this attitude as illustration of Clark’s disregard for problem students; in his defense, Clark maintains that his focus is to ensure that education can actually occur in schools. Commenting in the New York Times Book Review Elizabeth Lyttleton Sturz called Laying Down the Law “a fascinating picture of a man obsessed with the nuts and bolts that make or break programs in education and elsewhere.”
Clark underwent open-heart surgery in May of 1989; two months later he resigned from Eastside. Prior to his departure newspaper editorials had increasingly called for his resignation; the New York Times referred to him as an “unguided missile” who had been “abusive of students, parents and teachers, insubordinate to authority and contemptuous even of constructive criticism.” Frank Corrado, a vice-principal under Clark, commented positively, however, in Laying Down the Law on the “tyranny” of Clark and his battle against the status quo: “Joe Clark understands the value, and the real necessity, of a principal being the sole person in charge, and constantly promotes that. He knows better than most that, in the changeable and potentially explosive atmosphere of an inner-city high school, authority must not be demeaned, or all order may break down. … He took me aside once … and said, ’To be an effective principal in an inner-city school one must be controversial’ He did not mean that he planned to provoke controversy per se. He meant that erroneous thought and processes had become so endemic to the system that any principal properly doing the job would inevitably meet resistance.”
Since leaving Eastside Clark has lectured on school management, education reform, and drug control measures for inner cities. His larger-than-life story at Eastside was the basis of the 1989 Warner Bros, film Lean on Me.
(With Joe Picard) Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, Regenery Gateway, 1989.
Clark, Joe, and Joe Picard, Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, Regnery Gateway, 1989.
American Spectator, August 1989.
Black Enterprise, May 1988.
Education Digest, November 1989.
Education Week, April 26, 1989.
Jet, July 31, 1989; March 12, 1990.
Nation, January 30, 1988.
National Review, May 5, 1989.
New York Times, January 5, 1988; January 11, 1988; January 14, 1988; January 15, 1988; January 16, 1988; January 23, 1988; January 27, 1988; January 29, 1988; March 6, 1988; April 5, 1988; June 6, 1988; February 11, 1989; March 11, 1989; March 14, 1989; July 15, 1989.
New York Times Book Review, July 9, 1989.
People, March 27, 1989.
Time, February 1, 1988; March 13, 1989.
—Michael E. Mueller