Principal helps change a history of violence

by G. Allen Johnson (SF Chronicle)
October 23, 2009

principalstone

Filed under the category “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Al Attles, the coach of the Golden State Warriors’ lone championship team, once found himself back at his alma mater, Weequahic High School in Newark, N.J.

“Shocked would be a tame word,” Attles said of his reaction to the horrid conditions. “It used to be so pristine. If you ever saw one of those Hollywood high school movies from the 1950s, where the lawn was manicured … that’s the way Weequahic was. You didn’t walk on the grass. It was terrific.

“And then to go back there and see fences up and metal detectors when you go into the school, like an airport. And when you go into the school – bent lockers, boards on the windows. You almost want to cry.”

Attles is featured in Beth Toni Kruvant’s moving documentary “Heart of Stone,” a portrait of Weequahic today and principal Ron Stone’s efforts to change the culture.

Now a special assistant with the Warriors, the 72-year-old Attles is one of several notable figures to graduate from the school, which in the 1950s boasted that more of its graduates went on to earn doctorates than any other high school in the nation. Author Philip Roth, also featured in the documentary, is a graduate.

By 2000, however, Weequahic was one of the most violent schools in America as Newark degenerated into the 12th most dangerous city in the country. Recently, “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien and Newark Mayor Cory Booker have exchanged good-natured barbs over O’Brien’s mocking of the crime-ridden city, but it’s evident in Kruvant’s documentary that conditions there are no joke.

Principal Stone wears a bulletproof vest when walking the halls. He forges truces between various leaders of gangs – three of whom Kruvant features, gaining astonishing access.

Stone also works with the Weequahic Alumni Association, mostly made up of Jewish businessmen who graduated in the 1950s and ’60s – including co-founder Hal Braff, the father of the documentary’s executive producer, actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs”).

The alumni organization is crucial because it holds constant fundraisers, one of them with Attles as the guest of honor.

“It’s really an outstanding undertaking by the people who went to the school,” Attles said at the Warriors offices in Oakland. “In most cases, you leave a situation and completely divorce yourself of it. And they haven’t done that.

“My high school graduation, we had 350 kids in my class, and there were seven blacks. They recognized that the demographics had changed, and they still came back. The people who are really trying to do the job of (improving the school) are both black and white.”

Stone’s efforts might yet lead to real change. The atmosphere of the school is still tough, but it is a thousand percent improved, because Stone has been able to walk a delicate balance, gaining the trust of rival gang leaders, the police, teachers and parents.

Kruvant wants to make the case that Stone’s methods can be used as a blueprint for troubled inner-city schools all over the country – Chicago, for example, which has been in the news because of the beating death of an honors student who refused to join a gang.

One might wonder, though, how many Ron Stones there are in the world. Attles says good teachers and principals are more important than any system a school might have.

“I’m very fortunate,” Attles said. “I’m a big believer in being at the right place at the right time. I went to a high school that really, really cared. A lot of the time, when things happen for you, you don’t quite appreciate it at the time.”

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