Impressions of a 'Principal for a Day'

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They told me not to wear any jewelry if I ventured into the East New York section of Brooklyn to visit Thomas Jefferson High School, but the blocks between the subway (actually an elevated train at that point) and the red-brick school were more dreary than menacing. Blight and graffiti everywhere. Inside the school, however, the walls were bright with posters: "We Celebrate Our Proud Heritage/Celebramos nuestra herencia con orgullo" next to "Say No to Drugs" and an announcement that it was Stop the Violence Week beside a portrait of Nelson Mandela.

I had come to be "Principal for a Day" in a program started last year by New York City's schools chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, to bring civic, business, and professional leaders into the public schools and make them aware of what is being accomplished as well as of what needs to be done. I had asked for a problem school in an inner-city neighborhood. When I was assigned to Thomas Jefferson, I knew two things about it. I had relatives who had gone there many years ago, children of immigrants who grew up to become lawyers, accountants, successful businessmen. And I knew that since they had moved away they had been replaced by other kinds of families, other immigrants. The Senior Honors Plaque on the wall outside the principal's office tells the story: January 1935, Edna Hyman and Jack Shapiro. June 1993, Garcia Evans and Mark Terry.

The principal I was to shadow on her daily routine was Lena Medley, a pleasant, no-nonsense black woman who has spent the last two years on a rescue mission. The school she took over is in the 75th police precinct, one of the highest-crime areas in the city. The school's zone takes in over 40 housing projects; its 1,900 students include more than 30 nationalities. Ninety percent of the students are black, many of them from the Caribbean and Central America. Poverty, unemployment, single mothers on welfare are the facts of these kids' lives. Some live in shelters, some in group homes, and for most of them this is the school of last resort. Those who are turned away by the special schools that can select their students wind up here. Youngsters who live in the one middle-class development in the area have the option of attending any of several other schools.

Many students arrive at Thomas Jefferson reading far below grade level. The graduating class of 1994 performed below the citywide average in all subjects tested, and the scores of the few who took the S.A.T.'s or passed Advanced Placement or honors courses were discouragingly low. When Mrs. Medley took over, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most violent schools in the city; two students had been murdered and a teacher critically wounded in its hallways.

No chance of that now. As the first step in her program to create an atmosphere in which education can take place, Mrs. Medley oversees a daily ritual to insure the physical safety of the students, all of whom pass through a metal detector and empty their pockets as a security guard goes over them with an electronic scanner when they enter the building. As they pass us on the way in, several boys are reminded to take their hats off, a girl plants a kiss on the principal's cheek and says, "Thanks for the other day." Those who aren't talking with each other greet us cheerfully as they go by, the boys in high-top Filas, baggy pants, and sweatshirts, the girls with elaborately braided or beribboned hairdos and dangling earrings.

This morning a ceremony is taking place in the auditorium. The 80 student cadets in the Marine Corps Junior R.O.T.C., formed just this year, are receiving their promotions. Seated in the first row are the newly appointed sergeants, eight girls and two boys. Robed figures in a classical mural look down on them as they step up one by one to loud cheers to shake hands with the ramrod-straight retired colonel in charge and receive a certificate. He tells them their promotions represent "a very big deal." They've worked hard and demonstrated leadership. They'll be expected to set examples for next year's recruits. Afterward I say to him, "I'll bet these are the first marines you've seen with earrings and studs." Smiling, he says, "It's a new world."

Waiting for Mrs. Medley's attention are stacks of spread sheets, memos, letters, and forms from the central board of education office and a message from the district superintendent's office about a teacher Mrs. Medley thinks is doing a poor job. There will have to be a hearing before anything can be done. She'll deal with these things later.

Unlike principals who stay in the office all day tending to the unending paperwork, Mrs. Medley makes the rounds of the building, looking into classrooms to see what's going on, sometimes making notes about a teacher. "That wasn't a good lesson," she says. "The teacher was doing all the work, explaining everything, writing the answers on the board. He should be getting the kids to do that. What have they learned?" Some of the teachers are drawing their students into their subjects--a history class discusses Plessy v. Ferguson; in a science class four girls and two boys dissect a worm and compare what they find with a diagram in the textbook; a math class follows a student's solution of an equation on the board. But too many of the teachers drone on mechanically while children sit bored or restless, doodling, tapping a pencil on a leg, or just staring ahead.

The school has been restructured to consist of five separate units. All 9th graders are in the Preparatory Academy for Mathematics and Science, where most of them experience their first taste of a demanding curriculum and of any expectation of success on their part. At the end of the 9th grade they will choose one of five units focused on law and government, science and technology, business and management, communication arts, or sports careers. The aim is to see that every graduate is headed somewhere: to college, trade school, business, or the military. To help them get there, Mrs. Medley has introduced innovations she expects will raise both achievement levels and morale: tutoring; after-school programs she stays well into the evening to oversee; Saturday projects; class trips to museums, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, or the Ballet Hispanico in Manhattan ("Most of them have never been out of the neighborhood"). She hopes to introduce a school uniform, even if it's just everyone wearing a blue shirt.

As we walk through the hallways she tells boys to remove the caps and headbands that are the insignia of various gangs. She knows she's competing for their loyalties. "They need to belong. I want the school to be what they belong to."

The most far-reaching of the innovations is academic. Last year Chancellor Cortines announced tougher math and science courses for all high schools, and these 9th graders will be expected to do the work necessary to pass the difficult and prestigious New York State Regents exams at the end of the year. Only a fraction of 1 percent of Thomas Jefferson graduates received a Regents diploma in 1994, compared with over 18 percent citywide.

I wondered how realistic the expectation was when I talked with some students at random outside the classrooms. When I asked one boy what he knew about Thomas Jefferson, he said, "Not too much. He was the first President. Stuff like that." I approached two girls. Thomas Jefferson? One of them says confidently, "He was the 17th President." Her friend disagrees. "He was the third President. Right after--what's his name?--John Quincy Adams." The first girl insists she's right, and when I ask her if she can say when Jefferson was President, she says, "Not exactly. Around 1875." Neither of them can think of anything he is famous for having written.

My reservations increased when I read some of the students' work in writing class. One essay, "My Opinion on Violence," being considered for the school newspaper, read in part: "If you feel you want it go out and work for it and stop the taking and steeling. People work very hard for the little things that they have So I know how it feels. Also steeling and rapeing. If you feel you cant have someone Don't grab them and rape them. That the problem in this world now." One's heart goes out to the author, but one's judgment questions her ability to make the grade at the Regents level. The problem began long ago, even before she came to school, and has been compounded ever since. Higher standards will have to begin at the very beginning of schooling, with a firm foundation in basic verbal and numerical skills.

Meanwhile, on the assumption that all children deserve a quality education and that we have to start somewhere, one can only applaud the intentions of the chancellor and the efforts of the principals who are doing their best to carry them out. Mrs. Medley exhibits the two most necessary qualities for her job: optimism and energy. She's brought Thomas Jefferson a long way but, in the words of the old song, she still has a long way to go. She'll need help, and the point of Principal for a Day is to engage the interest of corporations and individuals in helping. Visits to offices to see the different worlds of work in action, donations of books, computers, chairs, hours of mentoring--these and other contributions followed from last year's first such day. This year the chancellor's office had so many requests to participate that some schools had as many as three co-principals for the day.

But careful observers will have noted some things beyond their power, or Mrs. Medley's, to change. The enemies of promise here are the board of education, with its top-heavy bureaucracy imposing an infinity of regulations and the mountains of paperwork that accompany them, and the United Federation of Teachers, the union which jealously guards the privileges of seniority and makes it practically impossible to fire a bad teacher or even move one to a job out of the classroom to make room for someone better. Fresh paint, computers, supplies are all good to have, but if we want our kids to learn more, nothing counts as much as inspired and inspiring teachers.

Vol. 14, Issue 38, Pages 35, 44

Published in Print: June 14, 1995, as Impressions of a 'Principal for a Day'
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