Joseph Williams III hoped it was much easier to be reviled when he was a hypothetical.
was going to be the principal of Kansas City Public Schools’ African-Centered College Preparatory Academy.
And that someone clearly would face a tall order trying to win the support of the many parents who are uncertain or outright hostile about the school district’s decision to take control of the ethnic-focused K-12 program from its founders.
Well, here he is, a 44-year-old Kansas City-born principal returning from the Deep South, where education became his “calling” after he took a substitute teaching job some 20 years ago that was supposed to simply help him pay for law school.
This is a real person, he imagined the first reaction from parents. Joseph Williams is real. And he has the same values as I do.
More than 100 parents have registered their interest in putting their children in the new school and close to half of them want to take on parent leader roles on the school’s council of elders.
But hundreds more who had children on the campus a year ago are standing back. Many have been joining in angry protests, the latest disrupting what was supposed to be a cookies-and-punch meet-and-greet at the Southeast Community Center on Thursday.
Williams said he sympathizes with the unhappy parents.
“I have no problem with parents who are vigorous advocates for their kids,” said Williams, a husband and father of a 2-year-old son. “I promise I’m an advocate for my child. I have no problem that they might be withholding judgment until the principal gets here.
“I’m here now.”
Williams and Superintendent Steve Green talked about the task ahead when they walked the spacious campus Wednesday at the former Southeast High School.
“We talked about the tremendous expectations put on him and the important transition of this school,” Green said. “We talked about the vision of what we want to see going into the classrooms, what we’re going to build on. We talked about opening day and what we want it to look like and feel like.”
A month ago, on those same school grounds, the leaders who were running Afrikan Centered Education Taskforce Inc., had rallied its more than 900 children onto the lawn during the school day. They brought out community supporters to resist the district’s decision to end the contract and take over operations.
The speakers included an 11-year-old girl urging the crowd in an echo of Malcolm X to stop the district’s takeover “by any means necessary.”
Later in May, when the district planned a public meeting with the consultants it hired to help continue an African-centered program, crowds of parents disrupted the event, many bearing placards that included pictures of the superintendent with “LIAR” stamped over his face. Some of the signs were held up by their children.
Thursday, some of the former school’s supporters came ready with hard questions for the new principal.
They confirmed Williams, who is black, did not have prior experience in African-centered education. They wanted to know about the high school leadership position Williams held that was not listed on the district’s promotional material introducing Williams — a position at an alternative school that Williams said he resigned from because the school was converting to a private institution.
If it wasn’t already apparent, the opponents of the district’s takeover assured after the meeting that Williams now stands at the forefront of an unrelenting battle.
“We’re fighting,” Spark Bookhart said. “We won’t be ignored. We’ll make our voice heard.”
Williams and members of his team eventually retreated into another room at the community center to try to have the intended conversation with interested parents.
LaShaun Lars, who has two children she’s considering enrolling in the school, followed along. She said she wants her children to learn about their culture in a safe environment, and she likes the dual college credit programming that the district plans to continue at the campus.
But the noise at the meetings had been unnerving.
“Every meeting it’s the same thing with all the screaming,” Lars said. “And you’re not hearing what you want to hear.”
The school will be Williams’ to run. Green is not wavering in his decision to end the contract and take over the school. He says there have been too many disputes over finances, data management and other issues, including the taskforce’s failed attempt to sue the district for breach of contract.
The change is ending the quarter-century involvement of Audrey Bullard. She established the African-centered education movement’s first foothold in the district as principal of J.S. Chick Elementary School in the early 1990s and was the leader of the full K-12 campus that opened in 2007.
Williams hasn’t worked in African-centered education, but he will be working with a consulting team hired by the district that includes Molefi Kete Asante, a professor of African American studies at Temple University.
This school may pose the stiffest challenge yet for Williams, who came out of high school convinced he was heading for law school.
The former Kansas Citian was finishing his undergraduate education at Liberty University and had acceptance letters from several law schools when a friend told him about a chance to substitute teach in Shreveport, La. Distance learning would allow him to finish his degree while he worked at the school, giving him a more steady income on his way to law school.
“I was tired of the hand-to-mouth existence trying to finish that degree,” he said.
At first he was going to defer law school. Then he took a high school job in Baton Rouge, working as a special education teacher while completing an alternative certification program for people who change careers into education.
“My mother told me I should follow my heart,” he said. “This was my calling.”
He would earn a master’s degree in school leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida and move into administration in the mid-2000s.
For the last three years he has been the principal of a K-12 school in Quitman County outside Atlanta, Ga.
Now comes his return to Kansas City — a move that will not be easy as he tries to spark his new school’s so-far sluggish enrollment.
“I need to get out there and meet the people,” he said. “I’m hoping they give us a chance.”