At a recent Scarlett Middle School rally, principal Ben Edmondson playfully demonstrates some dance “steps” in front of the pep squad. But a few minutes later, when student leaders read aloud the results of the in-school election for the American presidency, his expression turns stern—fewer than half the students voted. “I’m extremely disappointed,” he tells the assembly. “If you want to change things, you’ve got to vote.”
With passion, he describes how his grandmother, growing up in the segregated South, “had to memorize the United States Constitution to vote.” (Later, he explains that she did successfully memorize it—and was among the minority of blacks allowed to vote.)
Now in his fourth year at Scarlett, Edmondson is cheerful and accessible but also clearly the boss. Scarlett Parent Teacher Student Organization treasurer Debbie Harris says her seventh-grade son tells her “that Dr. Edmondson is strict but that he keeps everyone doing the right thing.” And PTSO president Brice O’Neal says “it was a night-and-day difference” when he took over: “I saw staff come alive.”
Edmondson looks both taller (he’s six feet one) and younger (he’s pushing forty) than he is. When we meet at Tuptim, a Thai restaurant near the school, he is easily the best-dressed man in the room. He sports a herringbone tweed jacket over a silky gray turtleneck, and his brown shoes shine. Dressing well, he says, sets an example for the kids. He’s banned drooping pants and exposed midriffs at Scarlett—and he keeps belts and T-shirts in the office in case anyone forgets.
Edmondson practically bounces with energy. He has a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial—a credit to his father, a retired dentist—and says that as a youngster he dreamed of a career in politics. When he started to think about going into education, he told his mother, an elementary teacher, that he wasn’t sure he could deal with both the limited salary and the “lack of respect” he saw for men in teaching. He now makes a point of telling his male students that teachers and particularly principals don’t do badly—a point driven home by the silver Corvette in his parking spot.
About a third of Scarlett’s students are African American. Edmondson is a “role model to black boys at the school,” says Debbie Harris, whose own son is biracial. Edmondson came of age after the civil rights era, but he took to heart both his grandparents’ and his parents’ stories. He reports that his father, who grew up in segregated South Carolina, is to this day “not comfortable” around white people. “Never in his wildest imagination,” says Edmondson, “did he imagine his son would be principal in an integrated school.”
Edmondson graduated from the University of Virginia and received his doctorate from Eastern. He was a teacher and principal in suburban Detroit schools before coming to Ann Arbor as principal at King Elementary. He was there just a year when then-superintendent George Fornero told him his services were needed at Scarlett. Retired school administrator Bob Galardi says that principals had come and gone quickly at Scarlett and that the middle school needed the discipline Edmondson brought.
Edmondson quickly cracked down on rowdiness. On the second day of school he suspended a girl for pulling down a male classmate’s pants—and then announced the punishment to the whole school over the intercom. He walked the halls and visited classrooms, learned the names of kids, and sometimes even graded papers. He established the “Academic Society,” giving high-performing students with good behavior records special privileges like being allowed to listen to their iPods during lunch. The school’s state test scores have shown a respectable, if not spectacular, improvement. Edmondson emphasizes that large numbers of kids move in and out of the Scarlett area each year, making the academic gains all the more impressive.
Edmondson made headlines in 2006 when he canceled eighth-grade graduation ceremonies because Scarlett students had held a huge food fight in the cafeteria. He was in the news again last spring when he held back twenty-four students—5 percent of the school’s enrollment.
He says he has no regrets on either score. He still vividly remembers running to the cafeteria and seeing kids “with mayonnaise and mustard in their hair. . . . You have a food fight and destroy your school and you think we’re going to turn around and give you a party?” he asks heatedly. As for forcing students to repeat a grade—a long-debated issue in school circles—Edmondson acknowledges this can stigmatize students, but he says it beats the alternative of sending them unprepared into the workforce: “If you turn your life around, that stigma’s going to be gone.”
Edmondson says his wife, Roslyn, has a calm that balances his high-voltage personality. They have two young sons. At Tuptim, Edmondson briefly exchanges his principal’s hat for a parent’s, taking a phone call from his son’s kindergarten teacher and talking tensely about a problem between the boy and a classmate. (Although the family lives in Ypsilanti Township, Edmondson, as a district employee, enrolled his son at Bryant, in part so he’d have a black principal.)
Edmondson calls himself “a risk taker,” and he makes no secret of his desire to be a superintendent. Since leaders who can improve troubled schools are in short supply, that dream is likely to be realized sooner rather than later. But even if his career does take him away from Ann Arbor, he’s already made a lasting impression at Scarlett—and not just for the silver Corvette.