Captiva Island, Fla. — When asked what parents should look for in a good junior high school principal, the consensus is clear among educators gathered here -- each of whom had been selected as the principal of the year from each of the 50 states. Look for these traits:
A confident ability to instill a strong sense of order in the total operations of school each day.
The ability to inspire lasting academic curiosity among students and teachers.
The demonstration of deep compassion for each child, teacher, and parent in handling the special problems that accompany the transitional years of early adolescence.
At the first of what will be a series of annual conferences sponsored jointly by Burger King and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) to honor the 100 educators named teacher or principal of the year, the Monitor asked the nationally recognized educational leaders to describe administrative excellence at the junior high level. The following comments are but a sample of that discussion. Order
Raymond DiCecco, a junior high principal from Cranston, R.I., speaks to the heart of the matter on why it is so important to provide a strong sense of order and discipline.
``Junior high students are at an age where they first consciously know what the word `hypocrite' means. I must set an example so that they never experience it from me.'' One of the first needs of students at this age, says Mr. DiCecco, is a ``yearning to know what is expected of them and how they can accomplish it.''
They cannot be successful in this without a principal who provides an orderly learning situation and lets them know what is expected of them, he says. That is also the reason that he takes the time to stop a student who might throw chewing gum on the floor. A custodian must now pick it up. ``They must learn to imagine the consequences of their action as being part of a family. They don't like being disciplined, but they like going along with family rules.''
When it comes to discipline, says junior high principal Donald Hovland of Stillwater, Minn., first and foremost ``you have to know the kids.'' Be sure enough of your relationship with a student (and a vice-principal must help out here in bigger schools) so that if you see a student with a group that doesn't seem right, or a peer group that you know is just going to lead to trouble, be able to step in and ask why he or she is hanging around with them.
But you can't come on as a policeman. ``Whenever you're perceived as a policeman, communication stops,'' says Mr. Hovland. Academic curiosity
For Esther Cox at Romig Junior High in Anchorage, Alaska, ``What is done in junior high has such an impact on learning attitudes that it will almost determine how well students do in high school and thus in college. Learning theory and practice must be one, because you can't pontificate to students at this age. It's an active role or nothing.''
``Not enough people realize that for most kids this is the time when they are either turned on or off to math and science,'' says Francis A. Champine, teacher of the academically talented in a suburb of Philadelphia.
Students will track themselves into or out of the tougher math, chemistry, and physics courses on the basis of their experiences in their junior high classes, from there through the rest of their lives either opening or closing doors of today's high-tech society, says Scott Thomson, executive director of the NASSP.
``A principal must address scientific literacy in the curriculum as well as the faculty directly. Smart parents demand it,'' he says.''
``Junior high is the last time you will expose a child to all facets of the curriculum,'' says Hovland. ``Your dropouts are saved here. Instilling intellectual curiosity must be a top priority.'' Compassion
Kara Gae Wilson, a principal in Broken Arrow, Okla., points out that ``differences in athletic ability at this age are great and everybody recognizes this. So is `mental muscle.' '' A failure to take this into account in designing programs for individual students would be criminal, she says.
Principal Cox is sensitive to the great differences in ability at this age. It is all-important to have students participate in some after-school activity to identify in a positive way with a group of peers at school, she says. One of her answers is the ``six quarter'' basketball game. ``We have a team play at half time and a fifth quarter after the game,'' she says. ``Everybody plays, and we want somebody from home to show up and acknowledge this.''
``It is at this age where PTA [parent-teacher association] levels start to drop off,'' says Ms. Wilson. ``It's the last time most parents play an active role at the school,'' even though it is still a time when many students need just that. A principal must be active in making up for this, she says.
``It is so very tough to have positive role models for children at this age that are real to them,'' says Mr. Hovland. This is one reason why he runs a two-hour workshop each fall with first-time junior-high parents. It dispels fears and concerns about the challenging years to come in their child's life, he says.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor