What do you do with a Lubavitcher Chasid who once spent two years in army tactical intelligence? Make him principal of one of the scariest junior highs in the South Bronx, of course.
Last Friday’s New York Times had a front-page article on 39-year-old Shimon Waronker, who not only fits this improbable description but actually has made the school work. The photo just below the fold showed the Chabadnik in his suit, tie and velvet yarmulke, with his hand on the shoulder of a smiling African-American boy, surrounded by other pleasant-looking minority-group kids. It’s not a scene I remember from my junior high in Brooklyn, where the principal was a battleaxe who never smiled at anyone.
It’s also not what you would have run across in 2004, when Waronker arrived. Gangs roamed the schools and threatened kids, smoking, drinking, and who knows what else was common in the bathrooms, attendance levels were ridiculous, and the school had ripped through six principals in two years. It was ranked one of the twelve most dangerous schools in New York, and rumor said the strange Jew who thought he could handle it would be gone by the end of his first year.
Not only is he still there, the Chancellor of New York City’s schools wants to “clone him.” Attendance is over 93 percent, and although the school still has a lot of catching up to do, its test scores have gone up so much it got an A on the city’s report card. (A note to the Chancellor: Orthodox Jews are keen on reproductive technology, and even human cloning is kosher for some purposes.)
Who is this miracle worker? He was born in Chile and spoke only Spanish when he came to Maryland with his parents at age 11. ROTC and army service came along, after which he began thirsting after Torah. As a baal t’shuvah (returning Jew) studying at a yeshiva, he found his personal path, but his calling was teaching, and his drive to repair the world led him to Mayor Bloomberg’s principal-training academy.
When he showed up in the South Bronx, many people were skeptical to say the least. Not only did it look like culture shock, it looked like an impending train wreck. Black-Hat-and-Beard meets Hip-Hop? One mother wanted to know if the new Jewish principal was planning to charge the kids for lunch.
His military experience came in handy—“textbook counterinsurgency,” he says. He held elections to co-opt the popular kids and gave them lessons in leadership. (“It’s like they figured out our game,” one fifteen-year-old complained.) He required khaki pants and white shirts as uniforms and suspended students for things like slouching and yawning in class. He asked some teachers to patrol the roof with walkie-talkies on Halloween to prevent a hail of potatoes and eggs as happened in previous years. “You control the heights, you control the terrain,” he said.
He also sent most of the school for etiquette lessons at an upscale restaurant, bought them all copies of a book on “The Five Secrets of Teen Success,” and gave the boy pictured in the photo—he was getting into fights but Waronker thought he was promising—a copy of (are you ready?) Jane Austen’s Emma, “so he could see a different world.” That, plus daily meetings with the youngster helped a lot.
Innovative academic programs now make the school stand out, including bilingual classes mixing native Spanish or French speakers with English speakers, and special-interest academies within the school. Field trips from camping to museums and West Point broaden the kids’ world. Waronker’s dedication is legendary; at one point his wife (they have six kids) teased him, saying he should sleep on a cot at school instead of bothering to subway home to Crown Heights. Above all perhaps, his personal touch with students, parents and teachers made the difference.
And of course, he believes God has helped him. But why not at a yeshiva in Crown Heights? “We’re all connected,” he says. Many would say he is also helping God complete the work of creation. Shimon Waronker is good for the world and absolutely, totally good for the Jews.