Naked City

A Matter of Principal

In the five years (1992-97) that I wrote about public schools for The Austin Chronicle, only one principal of the district's 90-odd schools ever invited me to his campus. That was Alejandro Mindiz-Melton, who was then principal of Zavala Elementary School in East Austin.

The news of his April 9 arrest for -- of all things -- marijuana possession, has devastated his current and former students, associates, and friends. Somehow, they say, this doesn't make any sense. The Al Melton they know doesn't leave joints on his coffee table; he's too careful; he probably doesn't even smoke pot. The Al Melton they know is kind and reasonable, determined and resourceful, learned and persuasive. Like the time he summoned me to his school.

"Come Wednesday to the cafeteria at noon," he said. "We're having Thanksgiving lunch." It never occurred to me to refuse. As it turned out, the lunch was sort of a meet-and-greet for some of Austin's influential types. An AISD administrator, business leaders, elected officials, and higher-ups at state agencies who volunteered at the school were among the guests. Over the din of kindergarteners' lunchtime chatter, they recounted what Melton had accomplished at Zavala, most of whose population is low-income, since his arrival in 1991.

"Al told the truth about the kids' test scores -- they were low," said the administrator. "A lot of parents didn't like that." Nonetheless, Zavala's parents and teachers set about the task of raising those scores -- and succeeded. By 1996, student achievement had improved enough to earn the school blue-ribbon status from the U.S. Department of Education.

"He's getting the attendance in this place up," said another. Melton would personally fish truant children from home (or else send someone) and bring them to school. That helped AISD qualify for more state money, not to mention lending continuity to children's education. Students who had perfect attendance got to wear a button that said, "I'm a Zavala VIP." Boy, were they proud of it.

In an interlocal agreement with the city of Austin, Zavala had also acquired on-site health services. Children were inoculated or screened for tuberculosis at school. Melton was elated.

He also helped make the campus more open and welcoming to parents, many of whom had attended Zavala themselves and didn't regard it as a friendly place. Parent involvement in the school rose to unprecedented levels.

Under his reign, Zavala was more prosperous. Melton used his skills of persuasion to reel in volunteers who donated their time and money to Zavala. "He has the ability to see a situation and then make connections between people and the needed resources," says a former co-worker. He applied his talent for money matters, teaching his staff how to write grant proposals for instructional programs and library materials.

Teachers who've worked with him say Melton is a model administrator -- always available to them, giving them practical advice for solving problems (instead of suggesting that the teachers themselves are the problem, as many principals do), and caring for them as human beings. He still advocated for the kids, but never at the teachers' expense.

But Melton is all business with his staff, and never socializes with them after work. So even people who worked with him for years know precious little about him personally, other than the fact that he is divorced, has an adopted daughter, and lives in Allandale.

Melton was obviously pleased, but not full of himself, when he was named one of 12 American Heroes in Education by Reader's Digest in 1994. (He was more outspoken when Zavala narrowly missed receiving "exemplary" status from the Texas Education Agency in 1996 and had to settle for the "recognized" label for its TAAS scores.)

Melton is a man who gets things done -- not by lecturing people, but by prodding them into examining their assumptions. I once commented what a shame it was that Austin's schools had essentially been re-segregated (about 98% of the Zavala children are brown or black). Melton disagreed. "I take issue with the idea that you can't learn unless you're sitting next to someone white," he said.

Melton's no agitator, but neither is he some mealy-mouthed defender of the status quo. He used the same approach when he was moved to Webb Middle School in 1996, and at Johnston High School in 1999.

When Johnston students walked off their campus April 5 to protest schedule changes for 2000-'01, it seemed obvious Melton had neither encouraged them to do so, nor blocked the door, as they launched their march toward AISD headquarters. He probably reasoned that the students were making a decision for themselves, and it was in their best interest for him to support their decision, if he could. The march, however, probably annoyed Austin police beyond all telling.

Which has left some of Melton's friends wondering about the timing of his arrest, coming as it does so soon after his benevolent role in the Johnston march. It's too convenient -- being portrayed in the press as a supportive father figure on Friday, then as a scoundrel with a secret life on Monday.

Whether the pot wasn't Melton's, or whether it was, everyone seems to agree: Al Melton just doesn't deserve this. "He'll never get back what he had, never. It's so awful," says one friend.

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