The School a No-Nonsense Principal Built
A Harlem junior high is transformed by strict discipline and high expectations
NEW YORK — WHILE strolling the halls of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem with Principal Lorraine Monroe, a visitor immediately becomes aware that absolute order reigns.
``Can we have a little hustle here?'' she tells a group of girls clutching notebooks who are scurrying quietly to class. ``I think the teacher's already started.''
She gestures to one boy to tuck his white shirt in his pants. She spots a tiny piece of crumpled-up paper on the otherwise spotless floor, picks it up, and deposits it in a wastebasket.
In the mid-1980s, the environment of this public school, then called Intermediate School 10, was much different. Though once a junior high known for its academics, it had degenerated over the years into a place where violence, vandalism, and poor academic standards were common.
In June 1991, the Central Harlem (District 5) superintendent, Bertrand Brown, and local school-board officials closed it down. In its place, Dr. Brown envisioned reopening a school turning out students headed for top-notch colleges. He chose Dr. Monroe, a national inner-city consultant who has worked for more than 25 years in New York City's public schools, to create such a school. The following September, the doors of the Frederick Douglass Academy opened.
Since then, Monroe and her staff have steered the school into one that is attracting local and national attention. What she is doing, she believes, is highly replicable in other public schools.
People ``ask how did you do this, how is it that you don't have a lot of fighting, how is it that your teachers come to school, how is it that between classes it's this quiet?'' she says. ``I think it's because we expect it, and we've expected it from the very first day.''
Indeed, Monroe is a no-nonsense principal who holds tight reins. She patrols the halls like a drill sergeant. She is stern and strict, personable and dedicated.
``She sets very high standards,'' says superintendent Brown. ``She asks a lot of the kids; she asks a lot of herself; and everybody's come through thus far.''
Monroe was fortunate that she was able to build her school from the ground up. She found teachers by calling those whose work she admired; others found her. She recruited students by speaking at other schools about the project. Frederick Douglass Academy opened with 150 students in the 7th grade and plans to expand to the 12th, a grade a year. It now has 425 students in grades 7, 8, and 9. Eighty percent are African-American, 20 percent Hispanic.
The environment inside the blond-brick building is a stark contrast to the tough neighborhood outside, where crime, drugs, and gangs are all too prevalent. Not a word of graffiti defaces the walls; not a scrap of trash litters the floors, and not a student loiters in the corridors. Even when the bell signals to change classes, students must walk quietly and quickly. They are not allowed to chew gum, eat candy, or listen to headphones. Penalties are given for arriving late or not completing homework. And they must always wear the school uniform: white blouse, navy skirt, and black shoes for girls; white shirt, black shoes, and navy pants and ties for boys. These are part of the 12 non-negotiable rules and regulations students must adhere to if they want to stay at Frederick Douglass Academy.
``This school's about coming in here quietly and respecting your teachers. We don't tolerate rudeness, unpreparedness,'' Monroe says, adding: ``Kids respond to the kind of structure we're asking.... Lots of kids want to come here, and lots of parents want them to come because it's a safe school, there are academic expectations, and it's a lot of fun.''
Indeed, the waiting list is long. For the 1993-94 academic year, between 800 to 1,000 students applied for the approximately 40 slots open in the ninth grade. Students are selected based on a range of criteria, including teacher or counselor recommendation and review of past records. ``We take some kids who are at or above grade level; we take a good deal below. It's a real mixed class,'' Monroe says.
So far, test results have been positive. Nearly 87 percent of 7th and 8th graders scored at or above the national norm in math, up from 68 percent in spring 1993. The school ranks No. 11 out of 171 New York City middle schools in reading scores. ``We're intending to be No. 1 in a year or so,'' Monroe says.
Along with a rigorous academic curriculum, students participate in an equally intense program of extracurricular activities. Monroe's staff of 24 does double duty in order to offer 33 clubs and teams, such as tennis, gardening, chess, and tap dance. ``That means we can ask kids to be focused during class time because they can come to clubs at 7:30 in the morning, lunch time, and at 3,'' she says. ``Whenever we see a need, we create a club.''
Troublemakers don't last long here, and children who have discipline or behavorial problems usually shape up quickly. ``There have been some kids ... who came in not understanding, had fresh mouths ... change within a couple of months simply because it's the power of numbers,'' Monroe says. ``They stick out when they're very different, and they don't want to stick out in this way.''
Marc Austen, an art teacher who has been here 21 years, says: ``In the old school, there was a dire lack of organization, no general goal or theme, and things were allowed to get out of hand.... Now it's a pleasure to work because everyone's on the same track following a common goal of education. It sounds basic, but is not the order of the day in many places.''
Ninth-grader Felix Idehen likes the school because he says the teachers are nice. ``We say that they're mean, but they're on our backs because they care about us,'' he says.
Sixta Buelto, also in ninth grade, appreciates the violence-free environment. ``You can't even go to the bathroom in some schools without someone trying to start trouble,'' she says.
The school's success didn't happen overnight, Brown emphasizes. Before it opened in 1991, it took nearly three years of bureaucratic maneuvering for Brown to get a green light to forge ahead with his vision.
He says he was fortunate to find someone who shared his goals. ``If you get a good educational leader you can do something like this if they have support, and she had my support,'' Brown says.
Adds Monroe: ``You have to be a good risk-taker and have courage to be tough enough that when your vision is tinkered with you stand firm. The results are so visible it's worth the energy you put out.''