Three Principals React to Reagan's Praise of Their 'Local' Initiatives
The principals of the inner-city schools cited by President Reagan in a recent press conference as examples of how educational improvements can be made without infusions of federal money hold differing views about the role federal support plays in their schools' programs.
Mr. Reagan had said that the three schools, "just by changes from the principal's office down in leadership ... have become what public schools are supposed to be, to the extent that students are leaving private schools to transfer to the public schools."
The President was responding to a reporter's question about whether he would consider shifting budget priorities in light of the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The schools were recently profiled in Time magazine.
But Adan C. Salgado, the principal of Johnston High School in Aus-tin, Tex., one of the three cited, said that a 1980 federal desegregation court order was the main impetus behind the school's improvements in student attendance and achievement.
George McKenna, principal of George Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, which also was cited by Mr. Reagan, said that although his school had made significant improvements without federal money, financial problems threatened to arrest that progress.
But Frances Vazquez, the principal of the third school, Morris High School in New York City, said a series of academic policies that did not require much extra money had improved her school in the South Bronx more than had federal involvement.
She added, however, that many of the new policies required hiring more teachers and that the salaries of 16 teachers for remedial mathe-matics and reading are paid by federal funds for disadvantaged students.
Mr. Salgado said that his school did not appear to be improving at all until the time of the federal desegregation order.
The federal aid the school subsequently received under the Emergency School Aid Act, which has since been repealed by the Congress, was used to build a computer center, expand the school building, and pay for student retreats.
The computer center alone cost about $500,000, he said. The total Johnston High School budget is $3.07 million, he said.
The most significant impetus for change at the school, according to Mr. Salgado, was the desegregation order itself, which ended years of declining enrollment and brought in children with better educational backgrounds.
Before the order, he said, the school's student body was about 99 percent black or Hispanic. Now, he said, about 52 percent of its students are white.
Districtwide statistics show academic gains for both white and minority students after the start of the busing program, which involves 850 of the school's 1,650 students.
"If it had not been for the federal funds to accommodate the additional persons, and the plan resulting from the federal order, we would not have changed," Mr. Salgado said.
Ms. Vazquez of New York City said that since becoming principal in 1979 she has increased minimum graduation standards in mathematics and English, ordered teachers to assign at least 30 minutes of homework daily for each class, required writing exercises in each class period, and extended the school day from eight to nine periods.
Those reforms have produced an increase in the attendance rate from 67 to 77 percent and an increase in the number of students receiving college scholarships, she said.
More than federal money, she said, the credit for the improvement belongs to former New York Schools Chancellor Frank J. Macchiarola. "He made people accountable," she said, noting that he fired 60 percent of the system's principals.
Most schools can improve their performance by 20 percent without any extra money, Ms. Vazquez said.
But Mr. McKenna of the Los Angeles high school said his improvement efforts are only "in an embryonic state" and require more money if the school is to continue its gains.
Mr. McKenna said the school was hampered by a lack of funds for building improvement, classroom materials, and salaries for teachers. The school has no summer-school program, he added.
"Washington can't sustain this growth. A spurt is not a program," he said. "We're proud of [the improvements], but they do not begin to address the fact that our children still read below their grade level."
Mr. McKenna said the improvements so far have resulted from the removal of several teachers he considered to be poor, the establishment of performance contracts with students, and efforts to increase the involvement of parents.
But the money the school has to work with "is a pittance," he said. "Some of these teachers are making only $15,000, and there isn't a custodian on the staff who isn't making at least that."