Interview with new O’Keeffe Middle School principal Tony Dugas
Louisiana native bringing new energy and educational expertise to the east side this school year
by A. David Dahmer
New O’Keeffe Middle School principal Tony Dugas has a certain energy that he brings to the table that is contagious. Near east siders got a taste of it this past Saturday night as Dugas excited the Orton Fest crowd with call and response as he was up on stage introducing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band who hail from his home state of Louisiana.
When I say, “O’Keeffe,” I want you all to say, ‘”OK!”
The Orton Fest crowd was loving every minute of it. Motivating adults and students alike has never been a problem for Dugas who sat down with The Madison Times at the O’Keeffe offices in the the last few days before the official school year kicks off. He and his staff have been working hard to put the final touches on getting eerything ready for the 2014-15 school year.
“My goal as principal here at O’Keeffe is to ensure that this school is prepared to meet all of the kids that walk through the door. I want to make sure we are creating a culture where kids look forward to coming in every day,” he says. “People love this school. I just want to make sure that I turn over every rock and make sure that we are doing the best we can. I want people to say, ‘Wow. That O’Keeffe is something special!’
“If education is done right, it’s a beautiful thing,” he adds. “But it’s not easy.”
There’s already a prestigiousness about O’Keeffe Middle School. Dugas can’t help but bring it a little more soul. His call and response goes back to his days working with students and in education in Baton Rouge, La., Boston, and Washington D.C. and also at his most recent job as principal of Sun Prairie’s Northside Elementary School. He has a knack for getting his students involved and being creative. His YouTube video he starred in at Northside playing along to Pharrell William’s “Happy” was quite creative and has 68,000 views and counting.
[See it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K0icJw2Y-I —Ed.]
Dugas has had a long and interesting route that brought him to Madison. He was born in Carlsbad, Calif., to an African-American father and a Mexican mother and moved to Louisiana when he was small.
“When they came to Lafayette, [La.], there weren’t any other interracial couples there,” Dugas remembers. “My dad has always been one of those guys who was comfortable doing his thing and not worrying about what people thought. In some ways, he was a risk-taker. He taught me by example. We were expected to be good kids, but there were no blueprints for higher education degrees in our house. Nobody went to college. With that said, we were at the mercy of the public schools.”
Dugas went to college at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., a historically black college and university (HBCU), where he played strong safety and linebacker on the football team and would earn a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. During his sophomore year, he started working for summer school programs at LaFayette Middle School. One afternoon, the director of the program told Dugas that he needed to run some things while he was gone which suddenly put Dugas in charge of 150 kids. “When he puts the microphone in my hand, that was pretty electric. It was explosive,” Dugas remembers. “I was leading this group of kids. It was fun; it was spirited. I said to myself, this feels good.”
That was the point in the young life of Dugas where he knew that education was his future. “Wow. I can really influence kids. I saw smiles on these kids’ faces,” he remembers. “I saw kids saying, ‘Hey, we want him to do it again!’”
He started his career as the citywide director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge and he met his future wife, Angela, while student teaching in Louisiana.
After two years of teaching he and Angela were hired at the newly founded Maya Angelou Public Charter School (MAPCS) in Washington D.C. The Maya Angelou School was specifically designed for court-involved students in 10th through 12th grades that had been left behind by the D.C. public schools. Dugas taught history and design curriculum and would eventually become the assistant principal. “We did great work in D.C. My teacher lens was developed there,” Dugas remembers.
“We developed really good curriculum around assessments with good standards. You have collaborative work and good teaching matters … which is very similar to the theme we have going on in Madison right now.”
After four years in Washington D.C., Angela was accepted into graduate school at Harvard, so their next move was to Boston where Dugas became the executive director of a non-profit called the Eight-Grade Academy for Citizen Schools, a Boston-based national program whose primary goal is to educate kids and build community.
“My experience in Boston helped me realize that for the most struggling kids, what they don’t have is social capital,” he says. “Our goal for those kids that struggled the most was to develop that bridge and develop partnerships with major corporations and we had major apprenticeships. We did some great work there in Boston. We walked away from there saying, ‘Wow. If we invest in our kids and we are really intentional about giving kids access, great things will happen.’”
With his wife’s family living in Madison, Dugas was happy to accept a position at graduate school at the UW-Madison School of Education where he would go on to earn his master’s degree in educational leadership. Currently, he’s slowly working towards his Ph.D. He’s been principal of Northside Elementary in Sun Prairie for the last four years before recently accepting the job at O’Keeffe.
Not realizing his extensive past in some of the United States larger cities with some of the nation’s most-troubled kids, Dugas has had to deal with Madisonians constantly feeling the need to help him with his jump from small-town Sun Prairie to Madison. “’This is a whole different beast,’” they tell me,” Dugas smiles. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana. Taught in Baton Rouge and D.C. and worked in Boston. [Madison] is Pleasantville. There are some challenges here. But don’t come and tell me ‘the Madison experience’ or that what you guys are doing here is that great because the numbers right now are saying that it’s not-so great.
“I really enjoyed my time in Sun Prairie. It being smaller, I was really able to connect a little more,” Dugas adds. “It is Sun Prairie. You have to learn to speak Sun Prairie. It is a small town. Whatever happens, people know about it. People assume different things. You have to learn how to function within that. It was a great experience for me, though.”
In some aspects, Madison didn’t turn out to be “a whole different beast” than Sun Prairie. At the Farmers’ Market and other places around town, Dugas hosts visitors from big cities who often comment on the sea of white faces that engulf them as they stroll around the Capitol building. At orientation for teachers and administrators, Dugas couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity, too, especially for a school district whose students are majority minority.
“This room was filled with all new teachers. I counted on one hand the brown faces I saw — this was a room with about 300 people, mind you,” he says. “But I understand how hard it is to diversify. If it wasn’t for my wife, I wouldn’t likely be in this area, either.”
Dugas is pretty adamant about working to close the achievement gap in Madison’s schools. But even such a noble goal has some political risk.
“When you start saying, ‘our goal is to close the gap,’ people will immediately ask, ‘but what are you doing about the high-end kids?’” Dugas says. “We’re still all about those kids and working for them. We’re working for them all. But you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Let’s invest in the students who need it the most and have been disenfranchised for years.”
Dugas says that he is impressed with MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham so far.
“With the new behavioral education plan that the District has going on, it’s about teaching the skills to kids that we know will help them be successful and doing it with tenacity and never giving up,” Dugas says. “We have to make sure our kids don’t fall through the cracks.
“Dr. Cheatham has a very clear focus,” he adds. “I am impressed with her approach. I’ve never been more excited than I have to be under a superintendent like Dr. Cheatham.”
With the new school year now upon us, Dugas is ready to make his mark.
“I want to be effective. I hope when people hear my name that it is connected to effective work,” he says. “I am looking forward to doing our thing at this school and to play my role in making education really, really good in this city.
“I’m really pushing my staff this year— I don’t care if you’ve been doing it for 20 years; I don’t care if you’ve been doing it for two — because everybody has something to learn,” he adds. “I never stop learning … I can’t afford to.”
One of his immediate goals is to make everybody at O’Keeffe feel like they are part of a family.
“I want to challenge our kids to be connected. We have tons of kids and we all have our cliques, but these kids in 7th grade are passing each other up,” Dugas says. “One of the biggest resources we have are our peers. You never know who’s in the room so make friends. Connect with each other. Network. Let the people at school become your family. I want us to truly be a family here. I want this to be a place where all kids feel smart and for the kids to take positive risk. If students take positive risk they allow themselves to not be afraid to make mistakes … which means our school needs to be safe for everybody.
“In the end, I want to see great results at our school,” he adds. “And I will do whatever it takes to get them.”