Education

Professor Practices What He Preaches As Principal of Rural Ohio School

By Joanna Richardson — December 16, 1992 7 min read
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STEWART, OHIO--The entrance to Federal Hocking High School used to be marked by a series of heavy maroon doors, all but one locked. Only narrow strips of glass on either side of the entrance provided a glimpse of the school’s main lobby, or a view of the world outside.

But when George Wood came to Federal Hocking, just four weeks before the start of the school year, new doors came with him.

The painted metal was replaced with glass doors, propped open when the weather permitted.

Now, students, faculty, school workers, and parent volunteers are treated to a view of the winding Hocking River, across the road from school, and just beyond, the gentle slopes of the Hocking Hills.

To some, the change might seem insignificant, but to this school, tucked in the heart of Appalachia in one of Ohio’s poorest rural districts, it was a symbol of much greater improvement.

When Mr. Wood accepted a job as the principal last summer, Federal Hocking had a reputation in Athens County as a “problem school’’ with a lack of money and an unruly student body. And apparently no one else wanted the job.

“There was a bad image at the school,’' says Reba Robinson, a school volunteer whose son, Michael, is a junior. “People wouldn’t want to move here because of Federal Hocking.’'

But Mr. Wood, who lives in nearby Amesville with his wife and two children, is trying to change all that. And he gave up a full-time tenured position as an education professor at Ohio University, 10 miles away in Athens, to see to it that the changes take place.

Superintendent Tim Lairson, sitting in his modest office in a white clapboard house behind Federal Hocking Middle School, says the first person he offered the position of principal to “bowed out at the last minute’’ without explanation.

“So I told George, ‘I’ll give you the school if you just take this job,’ '' he adds with a laugh.

So far at least, the superintendent does not regret it. “It’s the first year I can remember that I haven’t been having to run down to the high school’’ to intervene, says Mr. Lairson, who manages the district’s two primary and two secondary schools.

A Friend and Mentor

In many ways, George Wood was destined to work at a school like Federal Hocking.

He had just completed five years of travel and research for his book, Schools That Work: America’s Most Innovative Public Education Programs, and he was bursting with ideas.

But it is his energetic, personable style--his ability to relate to teenagers as a friend and a mentor--that suits this role.

When the bell rings at Federal Hocking, signaling the three-minute traffic time between classes, the principal leaps out the side door of his office and into the hallway leading to the school cafeteria, the social center of the building.

“Where are you supposed to be, bud?’' he asks one boy who appears to have no intention of heading to class. After urging him on, he turns to another student to discuss the boy’s interest in launching a small business.

The boy appears worried about whether his venture will get off the ground.

“Well, I could lend you the money,’' the principal begins, asking him how they could work out a payback plan. When their discussion ends and the boy rushes off to class, Mr. Wood scans the few hallways here, looks out a side entrance, and heads back to his office.

‘A Better Way To Do Things’

Though a few are still dismayed by the principal’s style, most students have grown accustomed to seeing him roaming around the school, chatting with the students, and hanging out at sports events. Every morning, he meets the buses in front of the school and greets students--many of whom travel unmarked rural routes for more than an hour to reach Federal Hocking--as they unboard.

“I never realized how much I missed working with kids,’' says the principal, who taught social studies in Michigan and Illinois high schools before receiving his doctorate and the position at O.U., which he maintains part-time.

“And in watching good administrators [while researching the book], I realized there was really a better way to do things’’ as an instructional leader, he observes. “It’s not about pushing paper around.’'

Mr. Wood does little paper-pushing at Federal Hocking. As Jan Crall, a special-education teacher at the school, says, “He’s a go-for-it kind of guy.’'

Practical Experience

About 28 percent of Federal Hocking’s students go on to two- or four-year college programs or technical schools, and a significant number enlist in the armed services.

Still others take jobs in the chemical plants where their parents work, east of here, in Belpre and Marietta, Ohio, and Parkersburg, W.Va. Or they work in the coal mines in southern Meigs County or in family-run businesses in Amesville, Coolville, or Stewart, the district’s three largest towns.

With this in mind, Mr. Wood launched an internship program at Federal Hocking to give students useful field experience. And he is creating the shells of several small school “businesses’’ for students to manage.

Ms. Crall’s special-education classes, for instance, are setting up a school store.

Another group is preparing to build a dog kennel and obedience school next to Federal Hocking that students will maintain with the small fees they charge customers. They plan to take some of the animals to nearby senior citizens’ centers or on home visits for “pet therapy,’' Ms. Crall says.

“For once, we’re letting the kids become the teachers,’' she explains. “The role reversal will improve their self-esteem.’'

“It’s not that things like this weren’t allowed here before,’' she adds. “But [Mr. Wood] just sees each student as an individual and sees what will work for them.’'

‘A Different View’

Ann Carr, a senior who is on the team designing the kennel, says she thought her last year at school would be uneventful.

But the aspiring architect is working as an intern at a local architecture firm and is collaborating with students on a project to design a museum in Amesville that will house the Coonskin Library. The students are gathering historical information that will explain how early settlers there traded coonskins for books to educate their children.

She is also helping the industrial-technology class transform the old darkroom into a design lab for students.

Outside the lab, in the art room, are two freshly painted murals. On one wall, an unfinished yet colorful tropical scene extends from the doorway to the teacher’s desk. On another, a starlit night scene is interrupted by a winding silver reel of film.

The student council, with the help of the principal, enlists students to splash murals throughout the school.

The money for supplies comes out of a $15,000 activity fund that Mr. Wood set up with a third of his $46,000 salary.

“Everybody really appreciates what he’s done for us and what he’s encouraged us to do,’' says Sara St. Angelo, the president of the council. “He’s got a different view that we haven’t been exposed to.’'

“Just because we didn’t have a lot of money,’' she adds, “it wasn’t possible to do a lot of these things. ... We weren’t given a chance to prove ourselves.’'

Though a fourth of the district’s 1,549 students are on welfare and about half of the elementary school pupils qualify for government-subsidized lunches, the district receives scant financial assistance.

Property values are low, providing only a fraction of the taxes necessary to run the schools. But, in this region, the state spends close to $1,000 less per pupil than the state average.

To change that, the Federal Hocking school district has joined a coalition of rural schools to challenge the equity of school financing in the state, according to Mr. Lairson.

But that kind of change--if it happens at all--could take years, he adds. In the meantime, Mr. Wood pays for field trips and school supplies with money from the activity fund. And he donates to the school the speaking fees he receives for promoting his book.

The principal has found other ways to improvise. He has enlisted parent volunteers to work in the school, and he accumulates some money from the soda machines in the cafeteria and lounge.

He says he is trying to make changes gradually at Federal Hocking, so that parents, teachers, and students have time to adjust to a new curriculum, extended homeroom periods, and an amnesty program for students with demerits for bad behavior.

“I like the fact that he gives us options,’' says Anthony Tabler, a senior, as he observes a bird for a psychology experiment. “Everyone seems to like him a lot.’'

Willis Korb, an English and drama teacher at the school, agrees. “This has been a really good change,’' he remarks. “The previous theory was, ‘Don’t make any waves, just put in a full day.’ ''

Mr. Wood says he cannot say how long he will stay at Federal Hocking, only that he cannot see himself anyplace else.

“This isn’t some kind of experiment for me,’' he explains. “My kids go to school in this district. ... What I do affects my kids and my neighbors’ kids.’'

Taking the job at Federal Hocking “has created the opportunity for me to sit down in one place and try to use all of my ideas together,’' he concludes.

“This,’' says Mr. Lairson with a nod, “is where theory hits the road to reality.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Professor Practices What He Preaches As Principal of Rural Ohio School

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