From school yards to high seas, US wages war on drugs. Caring, discipline give Phoenix junior high an edge on drug, other problems

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM the outside, the Greenway Middle School looks like any other nondescript junior high. But inside its taupe cinder block walls has occurred what appears to be one of those rare triumphs in American education. Not long ago, Greenway was the enfant terrible of the Paradise Valley school district in north Phoenix. Although part of a suburban system, Greenway - with just over 1,000 pupils - was experiencing problems common to many big, inner-city schools: drugs, high truancy rate, occasional violence.

At one point vandalism became so bad that Principal Don Skawski - after his office was broken into the 10th time - bricked over a sliding glass door leading into his room and replaced it with two bunker-like windows.

Now Greenway is more winner than whipping boy. Fights are down, class attendance is up, and the United States Department of Education touts it as a national model in how to curb drug abuse in schools.

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Beyond the fact that there is more civility in the hallways, there has also been an improvement in the classroom. Scores on standardized tests have risen, and the school has been selected as the top junior high in Arizona the past two years.

``I'm not naive. We still have problems,'' says Principal Skawski. ``But for a large city school, we're about as clean as you're going to find in the country.''

While Greenway has not found the elixir for American education - even administrators here admit few of their ideas are new - it has put together a comprehensive approach that some state and federal education officials believe holds lessons for other schools. You won't find any administrators here roaming the hallways with bullhorns or baseball bats.

The Greenway formula is made up of tough discipline, encouragement of student responsibility, and positive reinforcement. There are pizza parties, dances, and T-shirts for classes with the best attendance records. Roller skating parties have been organized for classes which go for nine weeks with no one being sent to the office. A ``recognition flag'' is hoisted over the school when a student triumphs in a writing contest.

Buttons are produced admonishing students not to take drugs or rewarding them for classroom work, and academic ``pep'' rallies are held before the start of state testing programs. Skawski himself, a loquacious, salt-and-pepper haired transplant from northern Minnesota, often roams the hallways with a pocket full of pencils, which he gives out for such mundane things as a student opening a door or someone picking up litter.

Along with the carrots, however, there are sticks. When students are tardy for class their names are put on the blackboard. ``Horseplay'' will bring a check after one's name, which may mean ``lunch detention'' - eating in a supervised area. Two checks result in a phone call to the parents. For more serious offenses, the rules are rigid: Smoking on campus brings ``in-house suspension'' - studying under adult supervision - and fighting usually means a 4-hour session on Saturday.

``The students choose,'' says Skawski. ``It is their responsibility. We try to be fair and consistent.''

Greenway has had some reason to be firm. As recently as 1980, marijuana and alcohol were flourishing on campus: 111 students, close to 10 percent of the student body, were suspended during the year for drug or alcohol use. Some 2,270 kids were sent to the principal's office for discipline.

Some of the problems can be traced to the neighborhood. The tin-roofed, two-year school services a working-class section of northeast Phoenix dotted with desert ranch homes and paloverde trees. It is an area that has a high percentage of single-parent homes and a transient population. To this day, close to one-third of the student body turns over each year.

In coping with the problems, the school has met some of its best success with the ``stars'' program. Under it, student leaders are identified - be they the standouts of the ``preppy,'' ``jock,'' or ``nerd'' sets - and taken on weekend ``retreats,'' where they are taught goal setting, decision making, and other skills. When they return, they break up into small groups and devise individual and team improvement projects. One group once raised money to repair school vans, while another painted bathrooms black so graffiti wouldn't show up.

``They were so busy doing good stuff that attitudes began to change,'' says Pat Epps, a specialist in drug-abuse prevention in the Paradise Valley district. She works with the stars program district-wide.

One who has benefited from the program is Allison McCarthy. ``I wasn't feeling very good about myself,'' said the blonde eighth grader, who was wearing an ``Esprit'' sweatshirt. ``I wasn't very confident. The program really helped me. I like coming to school.''

Greenway has also started a ``peer counseling'' program in which students help each other with such things as math tutoring or social adjustment problems. In the classroom, all pupils are required to take a study skills course in which they learn how to organize material and speed read.

The community has become involved with the school through an annual ``prevention fair'' in which child abuse experts, suicide prevention counselors, and others work with students. Local leaders are also brought in to trumpet the virtues of staying in school. Over the years the cumulative impact of the programs has paid off. No student has been suspended for involvement with drugs or alcohol so far this year, and the daily absentee rate has dropped from 12 percent in 1983 to less than 7 percent this semester. Discipline problems have dipped, too.

``There has been a big impact on the morale of the school,'' says Rebecca Van Marter, a drug specialist with the Arizona Department of Education.

Not all of the changes have occurred as a result of administrative fiat or new-found student cooperation. In recent years the socio-economic base of the community has improved and the once-booming population has stabilized.

Nor has the school solved all of its problems. Administrators would like to see the truancy rate drop more and test scores rise higher. There are also occasional scuffles that serve as a reminder that Greenway is not an upscale private academy.

But Ken Jackway, who has been teaching at Greenway for 26 years, is well aware of the difference. ``It used to be a survival kind of thing working in the school,'' he says.

``The school is pretty cool,'' says one seventh-grader, hitting a tennis ball off an outside wall. ``But some of the people start fights for just rumors.''

The school's turnaround has been dramatic enough that Principal Skawski now speaks around the country more than a dozen times a year on the ``Greenway experience.'' His message usually includes something on the virtues of patience and perseverance.

Sitting in his office, which hasn't been broken into now for three years, he says: ``A lot of schools are looking for magic. They want to know if I can come in in a half hour and show them what we're doing. It has taken us years to develop this, and we're still not there.''

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