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`It has to be for the kid'. St. Louis principal discusses his principles of success

By Gary S. BrayshawSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 1988

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.

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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.''