Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Principal works with principle

        It was a good day. I satisfied my curiousity about what goes on in a teachers' lounge, (they read magazines and drink diet cola) and enjoyed a thrilling moment of power when I led the Pledge of Allegiance. I was acting principal at Millvale Primary School. Trying to act as if I knew what I was doing.

        The children, kindergarten through the eighth grade, assembled behind the school, put their hands on their hearts and faced the flag. Then they followed it with a pledge of their own:

        I'm prepared to do my best.

        I can be anything I want to be.

        Their real principal began her job three years ago by introducing herself to the neighborhood drug dealers. Ruthenia Jackson just walked up to a group of men clustered near the school, held out her hand and said, “I'm the new principal, and I need a favor.”

Druggie curb service

        Her school has no gym, so students walk a quarter-mile to phys ed classes at the community rec center. Right past the druggie curb service and perpetual sales conference. “I am begging you,” she said, “to take your business elsewhere during school hours.”

        “Well,” one tough told her, “nobody ever asked us before.” They left.

        For all I know, they swarm like cockroaches after the last bell. But they were nowhere to be seen Thursday when I pretended to be in charge, part of a program by Cincinnati Public Schools and the Youth Collaborative.

        Students at this school live in public housing. Every one qualifies for the free breakfast and lunch program. They are poor. But their white shirts are spotless, their pants and skirts uniformly navy blue or black. Ms. Jackson scrounged a washer and dryer and keeps extras in every size.

        Like a mantra, she repeats dozens of times a day:

        “Tuck in your shirt.”

        “Tuck in your shirt.”

        “Tuck in your shirt.”

The enthusiasm bug

        Respect. Discipline. Consistency. Order. She is unbending. “Maybe this school is the only place our children will experience these things,” she says. Kindergartners arrive not knowing their birth names, never mind the alphabet or how to tie their shoes. If this all sounds bleak, the atmosphere is not.

        The teachers are focused and creative, the kids attentive. Floors are buffed. No graffiti on the walls, inside or out. Enthusiasm is catching, and this principal has a serious case of it. In and out of classrooms all day long, she knows every child by name and is not too proud to pound on a door and insist that a parent come to school for a conference.

        Reading scores are up. Ms. Jackson says she wants to start a homework club. She wants to involve more parents. In short, she wants these children to succeed.

        Against enormous odds.

        Millvale is scheduled for a new building. Inside, I hope there's a gymnasium. And a school nurse every day. More tutors. More counselors. More everything. These children arrive with so little. I wonder how many of them believe their pledge, that they can be anything if they do their best.

        We should follow it with a pledge of our own. You do your best, and so will we. We'll pay as much attention to the very tough game you are playing as we do to our professional sports teams. We pledge to give you the chance to come to a school that is ready for you, no matter how you arrive.

        That would be a very good day indeed.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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