By Ben Joravsky

In the time before he came to Chicago, Errol Frank was a superintendent in a suburban school system with so many trappings of wealth he even had a private shower behind his big, plush office.

He laughs at the memories of that shower, particularly on days like last Thursday, which found him dollying cases of supplies out of a hallway just before the students arrived for the start of the new school year. “It’s a great world, huh?” said Frank, hoisting another box. “I’ve come a long way from running whole systems.”

In an ironic way few might understand, he’s happily allowed his career to go in reverse. He walked away from a high-paying suburban command and is now the principal of three tiny south-side public schools (Woodlawn Community, Ariel Community, and Telpochalli), schlepping from one to another in his old Honda. He doesn’t really run any of them, at least not in the typical hierarchical sense. He’s pretty much let parents and teachers design their own schools. To hear admiring parents and teachers tell the story, he’s more troubleshooter than boss.

“Errol’s the greatest–the guy who deals with the bureaucracy to make our lives easier,” says Lorne Cress-Love, a founder of Woodlawn Community. “We call him the roving principal. He gets on his horse–or into his car–and rides from school to school.”

It’s hard to remember now, when so much attention’s being showered on the recent top-down mandates of the city’s schools boss, but back in 1995 Paul Vallas was promoting independently run small schools as the wave of the future. His idea was to let local leaders create their own schools and limit enrollment to less than a few hundred students; this would foster greater pride, initiative and intimacy among teachers, students, and parents. Within the last two years more than a dozen of these schools have opened, and most have long waiting lists for enrollment.

Woodlawn Community, created by community activists affiliated with Woodlawn Development Associates, operates out of a wing of the underenrolled Wadsworth Elementary. The students wear uniforms and study a separate curriculum, and their parents sign a contract committing them to fulfill certain responsibilities. “We wanted to be a school with strong roots in the community,” says Sandra Topps, mother of a first-grade boy and chair of Woodlawn’s advisory council. “We have a dress code. We integrate academic and social skills. The school’s small, so the parents and teachers know each other very well. We feel a great sense of purpose for being here.”

Ariel Community, located in the Kenicott Park field house in Oakland, was the by-product of a not-for-profit foundation created by John Rogers, the wealthy investor who’s president of the Park District board. Telpochalli, with a heavy emphasis on art and Mexican-American culture, operates out of a wing of the former Harrison High School in Little Village.

Vallas and the central office’s board of trustees decided that none of these schools–with about 450 students among them–was big enough to justify a separate principal. So Frank was assigned the job for all three. From the start he seemed the most unlikely of candidates. He was new to the system, having grown up in Cleveland and spent most of his career teaching and administrating in various suburban schools in Ohio.

He came to the Chicago area in 1991 to become superintendent of high schools in Niles Township. He retired in 1994 at age 56 and never thought he would get back into education. “I guess I got tired of being retired,” says Frank. “I read an article about these new schools and how they were looking for a principal. So I figured, ‘Ah, what the hell, this sounds like fun and I got something to offer.’ When I got the job I had no idea what to expect.”

He started work in May 1996, and the job was nothing like what he’d been used to. He didn’t negotiate contracts or oversee board meetings. He wasn’t in charge of curriculum or teacher hiring. The operators of the small schools were as much entrepreneurs as educators, an independent bunch who didn’t appreciate ultimatums from above. At first there was some apprehension about Frank, a stranger sent down by the central office. Those feelings quickly dissipated.

“It’s not an ego thing with Errol–he doesn’t feel the need to be the boss and he’s willing to allow each school a remarkable amount of independence,” says Stephanie Clark, lead teacher at Ariel Community. “Each school is a little different. Woodlawn tends to be more conservative, we’re a little more progressive, and Telpochalli’s very teacher-oriented. Earl manages to accentuate these differences. He allows us to be what we want to be.”

One of the most time-consuming parts of Frank’s job is dealing with the central office. “I spend a lot of time trying to get the central office to give us what we need,” he says. “There are good people there who really want to help you–the hard part is to find the person you need to get something done. You can waste weeks going back and forth on the phone only to stumble on the one person who can get it done for you in a day.”

For instance, he had to work through layers of bureaucracy in order to get work crews sent to repair leaky roofs and fix the floors at Telpochalli. And over the summer he found himself trading phone calls with officials in an effort to find the funds to hire three more teachers.

“You can spend a week trading messages with someone at the central office only to learn that he’s not the person you were supposed to talk to in the first place,” says Frank. “In the meantime everything’s hanging–you’ve interviewed your applicants, you have parents waiting to send their kids, but you can’t give everyone the go-ahead signal because you don’t know if you’ll have the money you need to hire your teachers.”

The growing pains will continue for the next few years, as all three schools plan to expand. Woodlawn, now just kindergarten and first grade, eventually wants to have classes up to the fifth grade and enroll about 350 students. And Ariel, now pre-K through first, wants to go through high school. For Frank and other school leaders, that will mean hiring more teachers, recruiting more students, finding more space.

Frank’s main base of operation is the small room he shares with Woodlawn’s clerk, Bettye Frierson. On opening day he was the first to arrive, opening the doors at seven.

“I’ve opened a lot of schools,” Frank says, walking through Wadsworth’s deserted hallways. “It’s always exciting.”

He walks into his office, checks for phone messages, makes a pot of coffee, and plugs in his portable computer. The first staffer to arrive is first-grade teacher Carla Smith; the first student is a boy named Mike whose parents are in a rush to get to work. Small and spindly, a satchel strapped to his back, he stands alone in the hallways trying to look brave while various adults–teachers and volunteers–bustle about him. Finally it’s too much, and he breaks into tears. “I like kindergarten,” he sobs. “I don’t wanna go to first grade.”

Frank ushers Mike into his office. “Ah, Mike, don’t worry, it’s a piece of cake,” Frank tells him as he offers the boy a tissue. “You remember last year–you were one of the smartest kids in the school. You’ll do fine. You’re the greatest.”

Frank starts to do a magic trick in which he makes a yellow ball disappear. “Hey, I know that trick,” Mike exclaims. “I didn’t know I had to develop new material,” says Frank.

He leads Mike back to Smith’s room. By now the halls are packed with parents and students. Cress-Love and other volunteers have laid out tables filled with coffee, cake, and cookies. From the kindergarten class come the wails of one or two students afraid to leave their mothers. One kindergarten boy, Marcus Webb, breaks away from the hand of his father, Charles Webb, and dashes right in.

“The boy’s fine, it’s the mama I have to worry about,” Webb says. “She’s having a hard time dealing with her baby growing up and going to school.”

Cynthia Webb stands in the hallway and dabs her eyes. “I have to get control,” she says. Someone hands her a cookie. “I’ll be OK,” she says.

By ten the hallways are empty, classes are in session, and Frank’s ready to drive to Ariel. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the system,” he says. “The decisions I have to deal with are all about education, not personalities or politics. I’m not looking for a promotion or to advance my career. I’ve been there–I’ve had the top job. The day I have to suck up to someone I’m gone. I can leave knowing I’ve had a good career. I can truly say I’m doing it for the kids.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.