South Bronx report: 'Things are different here now'
New York — When a representative from the Columbia Broadcasting Corporation contacted South Bronx high school teacher Hilda Gore recently for a follow-up story on the dangers of teaching in the New York City schools, Ms. Gore gave CBS a surprising answer:
''I can't be on your panel,'' she said. ''Things are different here now.''
Her answer was particularly intriguing to CBS, since her school, Samuel Gompers Vocational Technical High School, as recently as two years ago when its news team visited it, was known as the most violent in South Bronx.
In fact, things were so bad there then that student enrollment (100 percent black and Hispanic males) had dropped to 60 percent. Food fights and chair throwing in the school cafeteria were everyday occurrences. Visitors to the school were greeted with obscene gestures and salutations. Hallway walls were covered with graffiti. Teachers, most of whom were white, feared for their safety from attacks and holdups.
Intrigued by Hilda Gore's response, CBS decided to go back for a second look. In place of graffiti, its news team found graphic art murals; instead of obscenities, friendliness. Teachers mingled with students, and a spirit of community and cooperation shone through.
The network was so impressed with what it found that it sponsored a TV news editorial praising the school and its new principal, Victor Herbert.
When Mr. Herbert was appointed principal in 1979, he was given this ultimatum: ''You have one year to turn this school around or watch it be closed.''
Herbert, a slight soft-spoken man, whose only previous administrative experience was as a former English dept. head.
He knew no school assembly had been held for four years, because of student unruliness, and that enrollment was at its lowest ebb. But, as he explained in an interview, he was also sure of his conviction, ''If you give respect you get respect.''
Today, less than two years later, those murals adorn the walls, order prevails in the lunchroom, teachers are no longer afraid, and 100 percent enrollment is anticipated for the 1981-82 school year - including 100 girls.
''If you take care of the minor things, the major things will not happen'' is Herbert's philosophy. He began the school's transformation by attacking the graffiti problem.
''Graffiti denotes lack of self-respect,'' he contends. ''It says to the world the South Bronx and its inhabitants are worthless, but that's not so,'' he assures his students.
Right away he mobilized an antigraffiti squad of volunteer students, many of whom had been graffiti artists themselves, to paint over graffiti each day after school. He offered every student the option of painting a mural. Many have taken him up on his offer.
Next, Herbert ''humanized'' the cafeteria, as he calls it. His reform, which put a stop to food and chair throwing, began with rearranging the long prison-style rows of tables into small groups.
Then he asked for and got volunteer students to repaint the cafeteria after school. A creative mural followed. He replaced the lunchroom security guard with an aide who enjoys the students.
Students are no longer allowed to leave school for lunch, putting an end to noontime street sales of beer and drugs to students. At students' request, the school chef met with proprietors of the local bodega (grocery) to learn to make sandwiches ''that taste like yours.''
Herbert has met regularly and often with staff and teachers to improve their attitudes toward students. He countered the deep-seated feeling among his staff members that ''the school will never be good until we get better students'' with , ''These kids are as good as any, and together we can prove this.''
Together, Herbert said, they have learned to look beyond students' physical appearance, such as the one earring and the backward cap and posturing actions, and have begun to value each student's worthiness.
''The only differences between you and me - age, color, experience - are accidents,'' he tells his students.
He said he has capitalized on those things they have in common, such as enjoyment of one another and appreciation for one another's potential and worth. Field days for teacher-student participation in athletic and nonathletic games have brought faculty and students closer together in friendly competition.
Another important innovation of Herbert's was changing the appearance and atmosphere of the school office from a forbidding fort to a customer service center. Its attitude now seems to say, ''You parents and students are important to us. You're our customers, and we are here to welcome and serve you.''
Herbert has managed to step up security at Gompers while cutting the number of guards from four to two. ''You're not firefighters,'' he reminded these deans , as they are called. ''You're anticipatory agents. Your job is to prevent incidents from happening.'' Friendliness, tempered with firmness, best accomplishes this, they've found.
Three 1981 graduates, Ralph Fernandez, Mark King, and John DelToro, have lived through both the old and the new Gompers. And while they related to me in vivid detail what the ''old'' Gompers was like, including students burning a teacher's beard, they spent more time extolling the ''new'' Gompers atmosphere of encouragement and equality.
''You can really learn here now,'' they say with pride, pleased to leave behind this legacy for the next classes.
Of course at any moment violence could still occur. But more important is that now the school's reputation for nonviolence is established, and students and teachers alike are ready to preserve that reputation. And all because, it is agreed, a discerning principal was willing to risk his first encounter with students at his new school with respect for them instead of fear.