`It has to be for the kid'. St. Louis principal discusses his principles of success
St. Louis — ASK Al Burr how many children he has, and he says, ``You mean at home, or here at school?'' The answer - one at home, 600 at school - is the measure of the man's commitment after 28 years in one of the world's toughest jobs: high school principal. Beginning his eighth year as principal of Clayton High School in suburban St. Louis, Dr. Burr has earned considerable bragging rights. While many high schools struggle to realize any kind of educational mandate, Clayton has written the book.
The school was chosen by the United States Education Department as a National School Recognition Award winner. The National Council of Teachers of English regards the school as a ``Center for Excellence.'' Burr is the only principal to receive the Award of Merit from the National Federation of High School Directors of Athletics. Clayton students consistently earn state awards in drama, academics, and athletics. But the bottom line for Clayton High is that 93 percent of its graduates go on to college. That number includes inner-city students - about 16 percent - who choose to come here from St. Louis.
What distinguishes Burr is his priorities. First, foremost, and forever, he says, student success is at the heart of his day.
``When a principal starts to run a school in accord with his own personal bias,'' says Burr, ``he becomes one of the school's limitations. Then the school can't get any better than he is, and I don't know any principals that good.'' He leans back in his office chair, hands clasped behind his shiny, shaven head.
``Good schools have as many problems as lesser schools; that's not what separates them,'' he says. ``What separates them are successes. They have more successes than other schools.''
Burr recalls when a deaf student approached Mike Cowan, an English teacher who directs Clayton's annual musical, for a dancing and singing part. ``Lesser schools would have said, `That's going to be a problem, but boy do we have a job for you: You can build the set; you can hand out programs.' Mike Cowan said, `You can sing and dance.' So we brought in an interpreter to come to all the rehearsals. And this kid for three nights - to a full house - danced, not in the back row; he danced in the front row with everybody else, and he went three nights without a miscue, this kid who couldn't hear the music at all. And to see this kid embrace the director after the last show is a tremendous success. And in his life that's going to make a big difference.''
While many Clayton students do very well academically, athletically, and in other activities, the school does not ignore students who are struggling with grades or other problems. Some years ago Burr introduced a program he calls ``Adopt a Kid.'' Faculty members each take on a ``high risk'' student and personally help him through his school year.
``To us, `faculty' covers every adult in the building,'' says Jon Hoffman, one of Clayton's top athletes. ``They are all teachers, and they're always available.''
Burr sees the school system as being in constant flux, with only one constant: the agreement among faculty, students, and administrators that the ``fundamental purpose'' for Clayton High School is teaching and learning. Everyone is expected to enhance that purpose.
``It's one on one,'' says student Susan Maginn, who won Best Actress at last year's Missouri State Drama Championship. ``Not like there is some rule book in the sky that says if you do this, this is the consequence. Dr. Burr handles each situation individually.''
``Schools that are in trouble have a lot of rules. They forget what they started out to do,'' Burr says.
``It's fun to work at Clayton, because you can be a dreamer and work here,'' says Burr. He has a place he can go with his dreams and plans: the district superintendent, Earl Hobbs. ``The first thing he does is start nodding his head yes,'' Burr explains. ``Then he says a couple of things which are really key. First of all he says, `I think you can achieve that.' And No. 2, `Let me know where I can help you.' ... And he stretches your dream, and he stretches it to where your experience makes you wonder if you can really accomplish the dream, but it causes you to get here very early and stay late ... because there is that possibility.''
Although much of what Burr espouses can apply to any school in the country, he and assistant principal Dawson Pikey point to the extraordinary community support for their efforts. ``When there's a levy to be passed, our parents knock on every door in the district,'' says Burr.
Partly because of this, for 25 years Clayton has had one of the best programs for teaching writing in the country. ``It is key to everything we do here, to what we are all about,'' says Burr. ``When we can consistently send kids out of here who can write, can you imagine what an advantage they have for success?''
English teachers at Clayton teach only three classes of 15 to 20 students each, instead of the five classes of 15 to 25 students required of most high school English teachers. Teachers meet during those unassigned periods with students, one on one, to discuss specific papers.
``This is not any easy program for the English teacher,'' Burr notes.
``Just a more effective one,'' says Kathy Puhr, head of the English department. ``Talking with students one on one is enervating. I try to help each student discover on his own what he needs to do to improve his paper. My mind is working every moment.''
``This is an expensive program,'' says Mr. Pikey, the assistant principal. ``I calculate the cost to be over $200,000. But at budget time, no one ever questions it. It's just too successful. We get letters from our kids in college telling us how they end up teaching their classmates how to write.''
Yet, Clayton does not spend money freely. Sitting in his small, sparsely furnished office, Burr says, ``One of the things that surprises people when they spend much time in our school is the lack of frills. ... Our old auditorium - we're going to overhaul it now with our new bond issue, but it was built in the early '50s and there it sits. And the reason that we're overhauling it is to make the stage bigger to get more kids on it.''
Burr is often asked to speak to educators about his successes. While he acknowledges the advantages of administering a small, reasonably wealthy suburban school, his familiar refrain is: ``Everything I tell you is free.'' And, in fact, he applied his student-oriented approach as principal of other St. Louis area high schools with enrollment at high as 2,400.
``I know my kids,'' Burr says. He arrives early - 6 a.m., ``and I'm never the first one here'' - so he can get his paper work done and be out in the halls when the kids arrive.
``Whenever you see a huddle in the hallway and hear laughter, you can be sure Al is in the middle of it,'' says Dr. Puhr.
This close contact with students allows the principal to detect problems early. One boy Burr tells of was a real discipline problem coming into his freshman year. Burr spoke with him and found that the boy was discouraged about being so skinny; so the principal arranged for some coaches to work with him in the weight room, and gradually the boy and his build improved.
``He started walking down the middle of the hallway, instead of against the lockers,'' says Burr. ``His grade point increased every semester; that's key.'' At graduation, with a 2.07 grade point average, he received two major athletic awards and the school's Most Outstanding Citizen Award. He now has a 3.0 average going into his sophomore year at the University of Missouri.
``We have our share of National Merit Scholarship winners, but I also enjoy the triumphs of the kids that are at the other end of the academic spectrum. We're really in the business of overhauling kids here.''
In defining anything of significance having to do with Clayton High, Burr always comes back to the student. ``The biggest thing about the school is that when we have a real student success we rejoice together, and when we have a student defeat we sort of weep together; we're not beyond weeping a bit together. And `together' is a key word in that. As you think about the morale of a school you can have all the coffees you want - and I'm for those, I think they're fun - but their impact on morale lasts about as long as the coffee lasts. It's got to be deeper than that, and it has to be for a kid.''