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Can two men from different backgrounds restore John Hopkins' pride?

ST. PETERSBURG

The two men who are leading John Hopkins Middle School come from strikingly different backgrounds.

Claud Effiom, 55, was born in Nigeria, the son of a civil engineer and a nurse. He is in his first year as a principal and believes the best way to lead a school is through "consensus building.''

Barry Brown, 40, is homegrown, a former basketball standout at Lakewood High School. A new assistant principal at John Hopkins, Brown recently offered parents and teachers glimpses of his troubled past: "Grew up in Childs Park. Come from a broken family. An abusive father. Dealt with the struggles of poverty, violence, drugs.''

At 18, Brown was arrested for shooting a girl outside a party. She survived, and the charges were reduced to misdemeanors. "I don't know if there's anyone more qualified to deal with knuckleheads," Brown told teachers and parents during a recent meeting.

Together, Effiom and Brown are charged with restoring order and discipline at John Hopkins, where arrests this school year skyrocketed to twice that of any other St. Petersburg middle school.

Pinellas schools superintendent Julie Janssen said she expects the men to work together on a plan to improve student behavior, increase magnet school enrollment and raise academic achievement overall.

Janssen also hopes Effiom and Brown will benefit from working together.

"Mr. Brown wants to learn a little more about academics, and what better a teacher than Claud? And Claud needs to learn about kids — tough kids,'' she said.

In a recent interview, Effiom said the school's troubles have been exaggerated by a media "that painted my kids in a way they are not."

Brown reluctantly joined Effiom for the interview but declined to comment.

The two men, both black in a school where minorities make up 70 percent of the student body, are being closely watched by some of the area's influential African-Americans.

Alarmed by the school's descent into chaos, they have expressed hope for the pairing.

"They have the potential for being an outstanding team,'' said former St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis.

THE PRINCIPAL

Pride of Effiom's African heritage is evident on the walls and shelves of his office. He came to the United States in 1975 and graduated from the University of Tampa.

Effiom began working with Pinellas schools in 1990, and his evaluations praise him for building positive relationships and for being an effective leader.

The principal, who has coached soccer teams on the south and north sides of town and tutored football players struggling with academics, is familiar with talk that he's not connected to the community.

"Maybe I haven't had the opportunity to be connected with St. Petersburg leadership. I haven't been involved in the (Interdenominational) Ministerial Alliance or the NAACP and other groups," he said. "I've just been involved with getting my hands dirty and working with kids on an individual basis.''

His challenge at John Hopkins, Effiom said, is balancing the needs of the magnet program with the needs of the traditional middle school. John Hopkins needs to get more parents involved and motivate children who feel disconnected from the academic system, he said.

"The vast majority of these kids are excellent kids,'' Effiom said. "The kids don't always do right. Some of them may not know how off-base their behavior is. That's why we're here.''

Cathy Wilson, whose 12-year-old daughter is in the school's magnet program, says Effiom has been unfairly blamed for all that has gone wrong at John Hopkins.

"I think he is a very earnest man who is trying very hard to make a difference. I don't know that he has been particularly effective with the students that are the core of the problem, but I don't know that anybody else has either,'' she said.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, has heard what others are saying about Effiom.

"I heard that he is a good man with a good heart, but he was the wrong fit, that he did not have the savvy to deal with some of the critical issues of some of those children," Rouson said. "The fervent prayer of the community is that a stronger leadership style is what's needed now, and Brown is that person.''

THE ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL

During his first days at John Hopkins, Brown introduced himself to students during lunch.

Nearly everyone paid attention, said Emily Wilson, 12. "He came in and said he was the new assistant principal and he was going to try and improve the school,'' she said.

Like many of the students he encounters, Brown grew up in St. Petersburg. He was a promising prospect for college recruiters when he was accused of firing a gun into a crowd outside a dance and hitting a 15-year-old in the head. A charge of attempted second-degree murder was later reduced; he was sentenced to four weekends in jail, three years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

The 1988 incident prompted the Department of Education to deny Brown a teacher's certificate. But under a 1997 agreement, he served three years of probation as an educator.

Brown "has paid his debt and moved on," Janssen said.

The two have strong ties. Janssen taught at Lakewood when Brown was a student there. He became an assistant principal at St. Petersburg High School, where Janssen served as principal.

She calls Brown "a true turnaround kid."

"He relates to many of the young men in our schools today who may not have guidance from an adult to help them deal appropriately with the challenges and family issues they face.''

Brown's boosters are pleased he is at John Hopkins.

"I am always one to say that young black males need to see other African-American males in authority and influence, individuals who they can relate to and emulate,'' Davis said.

But Sami Leigh Scott, former SAC president, has concerns.

"I refer to him as their new bully stick for John Hopkins. He's a black male, athletic, who is expected to tame the natives,'' said Scott, who is black.

Parent Charles Hunt met with Brown recently after his 13-year-old son — a new student from Georgia — reported that another child pulled a knife on him as he was leaving school.

"I talked to Mr. Brown, but he said he'd only been there about two or three days. He did write it down and he promised to handle it,'' Hunt said. He continues to worry for his son.

Cathy Wilson understands why Brown's life experience is being touted.

"It very well may be that he could connect particularly with the boys on the level that they haven't been reached before, but it shouldn't be solely up to Mr. Brown,'' she said.

"He can't single-handedly turn that school around. At some point, parents have to take responsibility.''

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

Janssen has asked Efiom and Brown to tap into community resources as they proceed with their task.

Last week, Effiom joined pastors, politicians, educators and activists at a meeting to form a Community Advisory Council. Their next meeting is April 27.

It will take a united effort to change things at John Hopkins, said parent Cathy Wilson.

"I don't think that any one person can make a difference. I think that the entire culture has to pull together. The kids, the parents, the teachers, the administrators have to pull on the same rope, and that, in my opinion, has not been happening.''

Times staff writer Ron Matus and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Fast facts

Programs to unify and strengthen

Here are some of the efforts under way at John Hopkins Middle School:

On-campus suspensions: Superintendent Julie Janssen told School Board members last week that four portable buildings were moved to the school to begin an on-campus suspension program for disruptive students. Up to 60 students will get academic assistance and other services there, Janssen said. "This would be the beginning of a model" that would be used at other schools with similar problems, she said.

Seeking volunteers: to serve as mentors, tutors, hall monitors, and classroom assistants. Training workshops will be held Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. To get information or to register, contact Pearl McCall, family and community liaison, at (727) 893-2400, ext. 149, or Valerie Brimm, director of the office of strategic partnerships, at (727) 588-6405.

Unity program to build school spirit: Students will learn about the communities they come from and participate in a leadership summit, writing competitions and team building activities. Community of Tampa Bay, an organization that promotes dialogue and respect among all cultures, religions and races, will assist. Date to be determined.

Can two men from different backgrounds restore John Hopkins' pride? 04/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 3:08pm]

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