NEW YORK — "Turn around a large urban high school?" Frank Mickens asks sternly. "Why, you know, we don't do that in New York."
But try as he might, Mr. Mickens can't suppress the smile that breaks out just above his Mickey Mouse necktie. Because turning a school around is exactly what he has done.
Combining in equal measures almost unbounded amounts of personal attention, strict discipline, and a spirited disregard for regular procedures - stretched over the course of innumerable 16-hour workdays - Mickens has done what many would consider impossible.
Parents today stand on line to get their children admitted to Boys and Girls High School. But in 1986, when Mickens was named principal, it seemed the embodiment of the failures of urban education.
Serving a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, and drawing from seven of the city's toughest housing projects, its students seemed more likely to connect with drugs in the hallways than academics in the classrooms.
During the course of Mickens's tenure, however, graduation and attendance rates have jumped. Recent graduates have gained admission to Ivy League schools such as Brown, Cornell, and Columbia. Teachers say a secure and structured environment - one conducive to learning - has been created.
The 3,700-student school is now rated as one of the safest high schools in New York City, with spotless hallways so quiet that instructors leave the doors open while they teach.
The students who inhabit these well-maintained corridors roll their eyes and shake their heads when they are asked about the husky, gravel-voiced man - a former basketball coach and lifelong neighborhood resident - credited with having brought these changes to their school.
"It's like having a parent at school," says Clint Alexander, a junior. "He's like a shadow. You turn a corner and he's there. Then you go down the hall and he's there, too."
"He cares what we do after school, too," says senior Xiomara Cordero. "He'll embarrass us if we do anything."
If you loiter on a street corner after school, explain his students, Mickens will find you. Every afternoon he does what he calls "perimeter patrol" - driving through the surrounding blocks as school lets out, keeping an eye on his students. If he doesn't like what he sees, he uses a siren and bullhorn to let the student - and anyone else within earshot - know all about it.
His charges insist that they genuinely appreciate the extra care. "We feel safe and protected, and that's what we need," says junior Reba Reynolds. "He wants what's best for us," adds classmate Teisha McClean.
Tales are legion of Mickens's interventions into the daily lives and needs of students. There's the story of the girl who was given a prom dress when she couldn't afford one, the flowers and personal note when a family member dies, the money gladly lent for cookies if a student is hungry for an afternoon snack.
"These are my kids," says Mickens, who is not married and whose only son died when young. He worries that today's students have not had the benefit of the tighter community and church ties that supported him as a young man, and he stretches to supply the difference.
Official efforts at nurturing are built into the school calendar as well. A regular round of awards ceremonies - breakfasts, lunches, and dinners - honor good students, improving students, and even those who consistently perform in the middle.
Money for such special events is raised in part by Mickens through public speaking and soliciting from corporate donors. "A lot of what I do is not in the job description for a principal," he says.
That extends to the rules that govern his school. He maintains a tough dress code: no expensive jackets or sneakers, no short skirts, no earrings larger than a quarter. He refuses to open the school door to those students who will not conform. He also requires boys to wear ties twice a week - to practice, he tells them, for white-collar jobs ahead.
He dishes out severe doses of detention and suspension. And although he does maintain a number of remedial and probationary programs, if students continue to misbehave he will eventually remove them from his school - an option some complain violates civil rights.
But to Mickens, it seems simple. "I'm not going to have a group of 15-year-olds running my school," he says.
Although he looms larger than life at school, Mickens insists that in truth, he's a shy and private man. The persona he's created at school is simply "what the circumstances required."
Mickens is in every sense a product of the New York City school system. He attended and graduated from nearby Brooklyn schools. He worked for years at Boys and Girls as a history teacher and basketball coach, taking the team to two citywide championships. He was assistant principal at a Queens middle school, where he credits a disciplined and hard-working principal with helping to shape his own work habits.
Before returning to Boys and Girls, he served as principal of a troubled Brooklyn middle school where he was also instrumental in engineering a turnaround.
But long involvement with the New York system has not made Mickens hesitant to buck its rules.
When it comes to hiring teachers, Mickens makes it clear that he doesn't like the way the Board of Education does business and doesn't hesitate to turn down candidates they send him. "They'll try to force you to take any old body," he says. "I have a right to do better."
Mickens has been permitted such insubordination, say some, because success is hard to argue with. "The Board of Education realizes he's right," says Tom Messineo, an English teacher at Boys and Girls for 33 years. "You may not always agree with him, but you see what's he done for the school."
Some observers worry about sustaining this style of leadership. Mickens, whose feet and legs trouble him these days, is candid about the fact that he'd like to leave his job within another year or two.
He's been equally frank about his desire to work with the Board of Education as a trainer of principals, but as yet there's been no offer. Some suspect he may be too much of a maverick.
The trouble with a principal like Mickens, says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, is that his style is almost impossible to replicate. "Sometimes these extraordinary individuals come along," he says. But such cases, he adds, are "one in a hundred."
Mickens himself agrees that it would be hard for another to operate as he does. When it comes to urban education, he explains, "Very few people have my sense of urgency."
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