New Orleans — BROWNED-HAIRED, husky Ralph McGinnis walks to the microphone, clears his throat, and begins reading a passage from his latest book, ``My Hiding Place,'' to more than 400 of his peers. It's a fairly somber tale, and some of the less serious members of the audience begin to stare at the ceiling and whisper to their neighbors. ``You must show respect when someone is reading his book!'' commands a firm voice. That's Lucianne Bond Carmichael, principal of McDonough 15, an elementary school situated just off Bourbon Street in the heart of New Orleans's French Quarter. The mass of first- through sixth-graders, seated on an expanse of concrete floor, refocus their attention on Ralph. They know, to a person, that their turn at the microphone will come before they leave this rambling old pink-stucco schoolhouse.
The ``publishing'' program -- under which every child here writes a book, illustrates it, works with the staff to mimeograph and staple it together, then presents it to the whole student body -- is one of many new ideas Mrs. Carmichael brought to McDonough 15 a decade-and-a-half ago. For many children, especially those from poorer households, a book project introduces the thrill of self-expression and a first taste of accomplishment, she explains.
When Mrs. Carmichael arrived at the school, it had been empty for a year, the victim of the French Quarter's exodus of families. She entered a building devoid of furniture, equipment, and even, for a time, of teachers. Her mandate from the district: Create an ``innovative school.''
The teachers, of course, arrived. As Mrs. Carmichael recalls it, she was sent the last 13 who signed up to teach that fall. So with a crew of instructors who barely knew one another, 400 children from a wide variety of backgrounds, and ``a lot of air,'' innovation was more necessity than choice. The story of what happened is told at length in Mrs. Carmichael's 1981 book, ``McDonough 15: Becoming a School'' (Avon Books).
In short, the principal was able to fulfill her goal of proving that ``quality could exist in a public school climate, and in the midst of a heterogeneous environment.'' McDonough 15 is one of the rare public-school success stories in a city known for a sparse education budget, a high minority population, and a huge private-school sector.
While the school's emphasis on innovation hasn't pleased everyone -- some teachers have found it unappealing and not every student has gone on to greater things -- its effectiveness is unmistakably registered on most of the lively young faces gathered for Ralph's reading this Tuesday morning. The publishing program is an important cog in the workings of McDonough 15 -- along with an emphasis on art (arrays of youthful painting and collage are literally everywhere) and an insistence that older students take an active part in helping younger ones.
Louise Gaffney has overseen the ``publishing center'' for the past three years. She started as a volunteer when her son was a student, then took it on full time. Over the past nine years, she estimates, some 700 to 800 books have been produced.
And it's not just a game for the children. Mrs. Gaffney looks at her own role as, among other things, that of an editor. She expects the students to revise as necessary and to work on their artwork until it's really right for the book. A plaintive ``I can't draw'' is never honored. ``I don't want to hear that,'' says this demanding publisher.
It's particularly encouraging, she says, when children who are having trouble at school come alive through their book projects. Smiling, she holds up a thin, colorfully bound volume on Martin Luther King. It marked the first time this young author ``ever organized himself to do anything,'' she says. Also heartening is the youngsters' enthusiasm for one another's work. ``I find that children really enjoy reading other children's writing.''
On a less upbeat note, Mrs. Gaffney mentions that the publishing center is chronically short of resources, a problem she strives to surmount through various fund-raising projects. She points to a small stack of colored paper for book covers. That's all that's left for the rest of the year, she says.
Mrs. Carmichael likes to point out that the publishing activity shows children that books are written by people -- and that their own ideas can be written about. Mrs. Gaffney adds that these very young writers quickly get a fairly sophisticated idea of what putting a book together is all about. She remembers a roomful of students watching a film on how children's author Holling C. Holling wrote his many books. At other schools it could have been a yawner, but here, she says, ``kids were saying, `Yeah, that's what you do.' ''
Clearly, publishing programs like McDonough 15's are one answer to critics of the abstract way ``basics'' are taught in many schools. One of those critics, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York, recently commented, ``Kids are taught grammar, but never asked to write.'' At Mrs. Carmichael's school, kids are asked, encouraged, spurred to write, and grammar becomes a practical necessity.
Taking a deep breath back in her office after the book presentation assembly, Mrs. Carmichael says that the close of this school year June 4 will mark the end of her tenure at McDonough 15. But that's not likely to mean a breather from innovative education. She may start a small school of her own, she says, where she can continue her efforts to ``simply foster the inherent ability to learn.''