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Principal Links Governance, 'Institutes'

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New York City--As a vocal advocate of this city's move toward small-unit "house plans" for high schools, Caesar Previdi believes they can do much more than simply relieve the feelings of anonymity that being part of a class of 900 entering freshmen may produce.

The plan he is implementing at Martin Luther King Jr. High School here will pave the way for a totally new governance structure at the 3,300-student school--one that the principal says is more typical of a university.

His view of the house plan "evolved," Mr. Previdi said, during his work in a pilot program testing the concept in the 1986-87 school year--the year before the policy became mandatory for all New York City high schools.

Initially, he had viewed its purpose as merely to promote small-group interactions. But he soon saw a larger context.

"I began to look at the entire school as a place that might house several different institutes or mini-schools," he said, "so we could not only have smaller groups, we could also have a different governance model than the usual hierarchichal system."

For the past two years, freshmen entering Martin Luther King have either selected or been assigned to one of nine "institutes" that operate as semi-autonomous units within the school.

Mr. Previdi chose to use the term "institute," he said, because "house is an Exeter kind of word," inappropriate to the backgrounds of the mostly low-income students the school serves.

Four of the institutes are based on curricular themes, such as "cultural arts" or "college-bound," and three others serve students in special-education, bilingual-education, or English-as-a-second-language programs.

The remaining two--also open to upperclassmen--are called "just communities." Based on the work of the late Harvard University psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, they seek to aid students in developing the knowledge and values needed to collectively devise solutions to a range of hypothetical dilemmas.

When the plan is fully implemented in two years, Mr. Previdi said, "I will take care of the larger environment, somewhat like a university president, and the institutes will get to act like colleges."

He has also created three committees he hopes will evolve into bodies that democratically represent three separate interests within the school--students, teachers, and the integrity of curriculum and instruction.

Each committee, in turn, has selected a representative who meets every other day with Mr. Previdi and the school's two supervisory assistant principals to discuss the day-to-day operations of the school.

The process is "not too democratic yet," the principal admitted, but he intends, he said, to move as close to "one-man, one-vote as possible."

When larger "emotional" issues arise that involve the whole school, he said--such as whether or not to start a Reserve Officers' Training Program or whether or not school security needs to be beefed up--the entire staff will be assembled in the auditorium as a "committee of the whole" to debate and decide the matter.

But none of the committees can be involved in certain "non-negotiables," he said, such as the hiring-practices procedure or diploma requirements.

The goal of the new governance structure is, in his words, to "develop a staff that is democratic, cares about the children, and is not simply content oriented."

Mr. Previdi admitted that the changes have not always been warmly received by some staff members--those "that have been practicing to be leaders and specialists for a long time."

"They have a vested interest in seeing that the old system is maintained," he said.

But he pointed out that "without a strict structure, they can become personal leaders."

"People keep saying 'you're caving in, you're giving up power,"' he said. "In the meantime, I'm going to be the most powerful principal there ever was if this works, because I'm going to have the support of all the major groups in the school."--ws

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