MADELINE CARTWRIGHT is a veteran in the battle to improve urban education. Her book ``For the Children: Lessons from a Visionary Principal'' tells how she transformed a dilapidated elementary school in ``the poorest and most dangerous'' section of Philadelphia into a gleaming educational success.
The story is told in a frank, matter-of-fact manner and gains potency from the many examples of children and families whose lives were impacted by this dynamic principal. After more than 30 years as a teacher and principal, Cartwright is convinced that educational progress must come school by school. She has a fundamentally different philosophy from those who call for systemic school reform.
``Don't talk about systems, or cities, or other schools,'' she advises. ``Say I'm going to make this school a better place....'' That approach was developed in the trenches. At Blaine Elementary School, in north Philadelphia, 63 percent of the families are on public assistance. During Cartwright's 11 years as principal, the crack epidemic swept through the community. Yet she created a safe, welcoming place for learning.
The secret behind this victory over urban hopelessness is simple: Cartwright made it a priority to meet the needs of her students. If they came to school dirty and disheveled, she cleaned them up and combed their hair. She raised money to put a washer and dryer in the school to clean needy children's clothes.
It's easy for high-minded critics to argue that schools should stick to their basic academic mission. Why should schools take on the burden of cleaning and clothing children? ``Someone must do these things for the children,'' answers Cartwright simply.
When she arrived at Blaine in 1979, Cartwright's first task as principal was to clean the place up. It was infested with roaches, years of grime covered the halls, and the stench in the bathrooms was overpowering. Cartwright shamed the lazy custodial staff into doing their jobs by scrubbing the bathroom floors herself.
To help improve teacher attendance, Cartwright began answering the phone each morning. Instead of reaching the school secretary, teachers had to explain their absence to the principal directly. Suddenly, teacher attendance skyrocketed.
Cartwright refused to take part in the latest educational fads dictated from downtown. And she did not shy away from controversy. She was determined, for example, to clean up the school's record on student testing. For years, teachers had been encouraged to coach their students in order to inflate test scores.
Cartwright introduced parent proctors; teachers no longer had free rein during testing periods. As expected, student scores declined initially. And Cartwright took some heat for her actions. But it changed the entire atmosphere at Blaine. Teachers began using every spare moment for academic enrichment; they set out to prove what their students could do. It wasn't long before student achievement began climbing.
In 1983, Blaine received a district award for the largest increase in test scores. ``They didn't need anyone to cheat for them,'' writes Cartwright about her students. ``They just needed a chance.''