When the job offer came nine years ago to run rough and tumble Weaver High School, Paul Stringer Jr. remembers his boss saying the North Hartford building needed someone "to keep the roof on."
It was then-Hartford schools chief Anthony Amato's way of saying that Weaver was a powder keg, struggling with serious discipline and leadership problems, as well as academic failure.
Stringer, a Marine and Vietnam veteran, later talked to seniors to tell them about his expectations of order and respect. He also asked what they expected from him. "They said we feel like we're living in a police state," Stringer said. "The police are up here 24/7. We don't want the police to be up here all this time."
They resented the reality that the students attracting all the public attention were the ones wanted by police. Stringer agreed to scale back the police presence in exchange for his seniors' promise not to "give me reason to call the police."
The scenario with the students sums up the reputation that Stringer, who retired this week after 30 years as a Hartford educator, established as principal.
He commanded respect because he gave it. His students felt he listened to them and cared about their future. The principal's door was always open, and Stringer, 58, rarely missed an after-school event.
He knew what he was facing when assigned to Weaver. It is a predominantly black school saddled with poverty, skirmishes that could turn violent, even deadly, and a graduation rate of about 30 percent. Many of the students come from fatherless homes and craved a strong male figure to mentor them. Stringer, divorced and the father of five adult children, encouraged his students, advocated for them, and — when they needed it — kicked them in the behind.
"Mr. Stringer, he's easy to get along with as long as you're not getting into trouble," chuckled Joe Thomas, 17, a senior. "When you're not doing the right thing, he's a totally different person."
Bearded, balding and lean with a piercing stare that could thaw ice, Stringer could come across as gruff and unapproachable. He had a low tolerance for half-steppers, and that included staff.
His experience as a Vietnam vet, postal worker and special-education teacher shaped his personality and management style. He learned how to anticipate, listen and be patient.
In Weaver High's rough seas, Stringer was the calm, reassuring and authoritative captain.
"He's a role model for a lot of these kids in this school," said Clinton Graver, 19, a senior. "I matured a lot because of him. I used to get myself in trouble and he'd say, 'Clinton, I see a lot in you. You can be somebody in life.' He cared about me. He'd say, 'Clinton, I want to see you walk across that [graduation] stage.'"
Stringer is looking forward to taking hourlong walks in the morning and riding his new BMW motorcycle — a long-coveted toy. Retirement plans include some consulting, specifically, mentoring urban school principals. Stringer leaves with no reservations and a few observations:
He says new schools chief Steven Adamowski should have sought more input from his principals and staff before moving forward with his ambitious reforms, including a major revamping at Weaver. Plans to increase the graduation standards for all high schools would be overly punitive, Stringer believes, to urban schools already behind academically.
Over three decades, Stringer has seen it all — gang fights on school grounds, funerals for 25 students and a revolving door of superintendents. He's also witnessed a lot of good kids succeed with little fanfare.
It's been quite a ride.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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