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June 2, 2004

Walking the talk

From: Kansas City Star, MO - Jun 2, 2004

Outgoing principal knows disabilities don't have to hold you back — and he makes sure his students know it, too

The Kansas City Star

Jeramiah Houston devised a last-ditch plan to keep Washington High School's principal on the job.

“At first, my friends and I were going to circle round his car so he couldn't leave,” Jeramiah said. “But then we realized he didn't drive. So then we thought we'd just build a wall outside the door and never let him out.”

Jeramiah is not the only one who wishes Ron Malcolm wasn't leaving to become the assistant principal at nearby F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kan., next school year. The last day of school at Washington is Thursday.

Malcolm, who is deaf and partly blind and suffers from diabetes and severe asthma, has inspired just about everyone at Washington, especially the 200 or so families who have children with disabilities.

Students like Jeramiah. He is blind in one eye and losing sight in his other one. Malcolm encouraged him to join the drill team and to continue playing tennis. At a recent drill practice, Malcolm noticed Jeramiah should have been marching on the opposite side, where he has some peripheral vision. Still, Jeramiah didn't miss a beat.

“Mr. Malcolm and I only talked once about me being blind,” Jeramiah said. “We talked about how we have to deal with it and get on with our lives. That being blind is just a part of who I am, not my whole life.”

Jeramiah's mother, Deborah Houston, likes Malcolm's “Let's not hear ‘pity poor me' ” attitude. “He won't let my son sink to that kind of level, ever,” she said. “And if my son steps out of line, he calls me personally. Most principals will not do that.”

Malcolm's love for his students permeates the hallways and lunchroom, where he is the biggest chatterbox of all. On a recent morning, he asked Lawanda White whether her father, who is ill, was going to make it to her graduation.

He stopped Kay Altenbernd to tell her he liked the chair she had designed for the art show. Then he gave a quick hug to Josh Hernandez, who's recuperating from a car accident, and helped him get lunch even though he forgot his required badge.

“I'm going to really miss all these guys,” Malcolm, 41, said. “I pretty much know each of their situations, and their families' situations. They're all working so hard to make it.”


So why is Malcolm leaving Washington? He wants to spend more time with his wife, Sherrie, and their three children, Joel, 12, Chelsea, 11, and Andrew, 8. And the couple can go to work together; she is the school treasurer at Schlagle. At Washington, his wife dropped him off and picked him up each day.

“This will be so much better for our family,” Sherrie Malcolm said. “A lot less hassle and a lot less time. And, as an assistant principal, everything won't be on his shoulders alone.”

At Schlagle, Malcolm is replacing a retiring assistant principal. He will bring his expertise in special education to the job, said Doug Bolden, the principal at Schlagle. He'll oversee the teachers and students in the visual and performing arts academy section.

“I've known Ron for four or five years, and I know what kind of man he is, what kind of administrator he is,” Bolden said. “Not to mention how well he works with parents and kids. We're very fortunate to have someone of his stature and expertise coming to our school.”

Most principals don't have Malcolm's track record, Bolden said.

When Malcolm, who has two undergraduate degrees, three master's degrees and a doctorate, came to Washington four years ago, there was no honor roll, no air conditioning and few assemblies or awards presentations. Now all those things are in place. Malcolm also divided the 1,200 students into four learning areas so they would have more attention from teachers who stay with them the entire four years.

“We use a lot of cooperative learning, hands-on techniques in the classroom, so there's not much dozing,” he said. “It keeps the kids alert. And they get the personal care and attention they need. The teachers really get to know each student's strengths and weaknesses.”

The proof that his plan works is in the numbers. Reading scores have gone up 14 percent from last year, according to the Kansas state assessment. And from 2000 to 2003, graduation rates went from 45.1 percent to 84 percent, according to the school district's research department.

“I love teaching kids this age because it's a time when they really can get their heads on straight,” Malcolm said.

But sometimes students try to get away with things by covering their mouths when Malcolm is around. Then they forget, and he gets the best of them. “I'll walk into a classroom and some kids in the back won't stop talking,” he said. “So I just start repeating what they're saying, out loud, to the entire class. It can be some pretty embarrassing stuff, but it gets the point across.”


If you ran into Malcolm at the grocery store near his home in Kansas City, Kan., chances are you wouldn't notice he has any physical disabilities, which is just the way he likes it.

With his glasses on, he can zero in on lips and read them flawlessly. In his office, where a sticker above his computer reads, “Deaf people can do ANYTHING except hear,” he also has a special close-circuit television and a grapefruit-size magnifying glass so he can read the dozens of papers that cross his desk each day.

“If you have a disability and you function like everyone else, people think you're some kind of miracle or you're faking it,” Malcolm said. “What I want people to realize is that people with disabilities don't go through all this therapy and training to do something funky.”

Malcolm began losing his hearing when he was in the sixth grade. He started losing his vision in college. The bottom half of his right leg is motionless from diabetes. Doctors told him the eyesight loss probably is because of the diabetes, but the hearing loss was never explained, he said.

When Tracy Allbee moved to the Kansas City area last year, she began interviewing several principals to see which one would help her the most with her daughter, Lahua Pittman, who is deaf. Malcolm was her first choice.

“I needed to know that my daughter's needs were going to be met,” Allbee said. “What I was impressed with the most was that he made time for us to come visit. When we found out he was deaf and had all those degrees, well, that really inspired my daughter. He has become her role model.”

Then there's Amber Hanna, whose insulin vial was broken by another classmate swinging a backpack. Malcolm knew it would take her mother almost a half-hour to bring her another one, so Malcolm took action.

He and Amber went outside and walked around the track to lower her blood sugar level.

“It started raining, and there we are, the two of us, out there walking,” Malcolm said. “I think they come to me because they know I'll understand. They know I'm one of them.”

Washington High School is not an easy place to teach. Many students come from broken homes, and many live below the poverty level. More than half are eligible for the free lunch program.

One classroom at Washington is strictly for severely emotionally disturbed children. It has taken four years to help them get on track, and Malcolm has helped the teachers every step of the way. It's one of his biggest sources of pride.

“If you ask most people if they'd like to visit a class with these kinds of students in it, they'd probably say no,” Malcolm said. “But the other day, the teacher and I stood back and took a look around and realized that the kids in this room were acting just like any other kids. You'd have never known they had all these problems. It's just been amazing how far they've come.”

Lucille Tucker is the teacher in that classroom. It's her first year at Washington, and Malcolm was her right-hand man. “He always was there to help me and help the students, and he's in special education so he understands,” she said. “When he sees my kids in the halls, he always makes a point to say something positive.”

Because Malcolm knows each child so well, he also knows their problems. They open up to him with some pretty bad stuff, he said.

“Let's just say that social services has us on their speed dial,” he said.


Malcolm didn't have an easy time growing up, either. Born in New Glasgow in eastern Canada, he was the seventh of eight children whose parents who struggled to make a living in a small town. Education was not a priority in his house, where books were scarce. He was the only child in his family to finish the 10th grade.

“I was different because I enjoyed reading,” said Malcolm, who is still a Canadian citizen. “I spent a lot of time at the public library. And when I started school, I was lucky that I had teachers who motivated me and didn't judge me by my siblings. They could have easily said, ‘Oh my gosh, here comes another bad apple,' but they didn't.”

Working odd jobs, Malcolm saved money for college. Because you pay by the semester in Canada, not by the number of classes, Malcolm crammed in courses day and night. After just one year, he earned an undergraduate degree in English from Acadia University in Nova Scotia. The next year he earned another undergraduate degree in secondary education from the same school.

In college he found he had a knack for working with children. As a community service project, he worked with disabled children. “I remember they just dumped me with this kid who couldn't do anything but spin objects on the floor,” Malcolm said. “I took him outside to swing, and then later, as I was leaving, he signed the word ‘swing' to me and opened the door. I got a response from him when no one else could.”

At 20, he was the youngest student attending a French-speaking school where he received a master's degree in deaf education. With three degrees, he started searching for a job. He applied for anything he thought he was qualified for from the school bulletin board postings.

A high school in Ogden, Utah, for deaf or blind students with multiple disabilities offered him a teaching position. He took it. He met his future wife, who also was working there.

From Utah, the couple moved to Colby, Kan., where Malcolm went from school to school in western Kansas, teaching Braille and sign language to students and training families. He also earned two more master's degrees: one in counseling from Gallaudet in Washington, D.C., and another in school administration from Fort Hays State University in Kansas. He earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

“Every time I got a degree, I'd be working with various kids with disabilities, and then I'd realize I needed another degree, like one in counseling, because I couldn't find people to counsel these kids,” Malcolm said. “Things just build on each other in terms of the kids I was working with at the time.”

In 1999 Malcolm went to work for the Kansas City, Kan., Public School District overseeing special education programs. He became assistant principal at Washington in 2000. At the end of that school year, the principal retired.

“Mr. Malcolm is like a big kid, because he can joke with us, yet he can be tough on us, too,” Jeremiah said. “My whole senior class is begging him to stay. He just always helps us when we need it.”

To reach Ann Spivak, Kansas City People editor, call (816) 234-4391 or send e-mail to His favorites

Book: The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins

Hobbies: Church activities at Victory Assembly of God

Subject when he was in school: English

Teacher: “My high school Algebra II teacher because she challenged me.”

Life lesson: Never give up.

Restaurant: Cheesecake Factory

© 2004 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.