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Popular principal
Phillip persuaded twice to delay retirement
(Published February 21, 2005)

Staff Writer

There were several signs telling Learie Phillip that something was wrong, but one in particular really caught his attention.

As he got up from sitting in a chair one day, he found he couldn't walk. No matter how hard he imagined it or willed it, it seemed his brain would not let him lift his foot and take that first step. So, he stood there, stuck until, after a few minutes, he was finally able to move.

Not long afterwards, Phillip, said he learned he was experiencing symptoms of Parkinson's disease. After seven years of struggling with the illness, the principal of Roosevelt Senior High School has decided to retire from the job he has held for 10 years.

Phillip, 56, said he contemplated retiring last May but changed his mind after the school's faculty signed a letter asking him to stay. But by the start of the new school year last fall, Phillip said his Parkinson's had progressed significantly, so he decided it was time for him to leave.

In his job, Phillip said he makes "decisions that affect thousands of people every day" and he does not want to risk getting to the point where his illness negatively affects the teachers, parents and students he serves.

"This is a very high-demand, stressful position," he said. "My mental capacity is fine, but physically I just can't do it."

Phillip said his official retirement was scheduled for the last day of 2004, but after new Superintendent Clifford Janey made several requests that he stay longer, Phillip decided he might as well stay for the remainder of the school year.

By the end of January, all of the faculty, students and parents at the school knew Phillip was leaving and all knew why. Sitting in his office behind his desk one evening, the tall, thin man with a short cropped, peppered beard talked openly and casually about the disease that affects nearly every aspect of his life.

Parkinson's is a degenerative disease with unknown causes that afflicts the nervous and musculature systems. It occurs when the brain cells fail to produce enough dopamine, a chemical that controls movement by carrying messages from the brain to the muscles. Effects, which range in severity, include tremors in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; stiffness in the limbs; slowness of movement; stooped posture; and impaired balance.

A physician who was a Roosevelt alumnae first diagnosed Phillip with the disease in January 1999. She referred him to a neurologist at Washington Hospital Center, who after numerous tests, referred him to a specialist at Johns Hopkins University, one of the country's premier research centers for Parkinson's, where he continues treatment. Learie said he recently signed papers to donate his brain, after his death, to the university for study.

Phillip said he had noticed symptoms for some time prior to his diagnosis. Sometimes while talking, for example, his finger would stick out at an awkward angle, a symptom called dystonia, where involuntary muscle contractions cause abnormal postures or movements.

Sometimes the slowness of movement associated with the disease can be so extreme it results in the body freezing entirely. Phillip recalled one moment when he was not able to move his foot from the brake to the accelerator after a traffic light turned green.

Phillip described what would happen if he didn't take his medicine on a precise schedule showing a reporter how the muscles in his left shoulder would turn inward, almost perpendicular to his body. His toes would curl under, and he might not be able to move his feet if he tried to walk.

Teachers and students help look out for him, he said, constantly asking him if he took his pills on time.

Phillip said he's received more than a hundred letters of support from his students this year.

Daryl Tilghman, athletic director and head football coach at Roosevelt, said some of his players wrote letters to Phillip and recalled how the principal used to dance during Homecoming Week to get the pep rally started.

"Overall, he's a person that people feel comfortable with," Tilghman said. "I think that by him being principal and you being either a teacher or a student, you always feel there's a line between the two of you, but after you get to know him, that line kind of blurs and he's more of a friend than a principal."

As one of the city's longest-tenured principals, Phillip turned around Roosevelt's failing academic record by establishing stricter standards. When he started, he was the school's third principal in three years, and he said half the ninth grade class was 19 or older.

"He really kind of turned the school around," said Maurice Butler, Roosevelt's program director, who has worked at the school since 1975. "When he came in, we were at a low point in terms of how the school was functioning. ...We had really hit rock bottom."

A native of Trinidad, Phillip moved to the United States in 1970 when he was 22 years old. He spent two years in New York before relocating to the District and attending the District of Columbia Teacher's College, which later became part of the University of the District of Columbia.

He received his master's degree at George Mason University and taught at Bell Multicultural High School for more than 10 years before accepting the principal's job at Roosevelt. Phillip lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife, Cecile, and has two daughters, Tamieka and Odessa.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator