THE late model American sedan slushes to a halt at the parking lot entrance of Cleveland's Martin Luther King Junior High School. A rear door opens and out jumps the chief administrator of this city's 137-school public education system. It's a chilly March morning and Frederick Holliday is off on another of the almost daily school visits for which he has become well known here in Cleveland.
Striding the few yards to the junior high school entrance, the tall, dignified black man recounts how this school was ''a shambles'' when he came to head the system 18 months earlier.
''But just look at this place now,'' he says, waving an arm in a semicircle. ''It's inviting, the students look happy, they're orderly - and the halls are clean.'' According to Dr. Holliday, the difference can be traced to the school's principal, whom he transferred from another school, ''and the fact that the community knows we stand behind the actions our principals take.''
Although the visitor cannot speak for the school's past, the scene corroborates Dr. Holliday's description. The halls are bright and clean, and although students are between classes, the noise level is low. The students who walk past, most of them black, appear to recognize the man beaming a toothy grin in their direction.
''Hello, Dr. Holliday,'' ''Mornin' Mr. Holliday,'' they call out, obviously pleased to receive a ''How're things, fellas?'' or a ''Keeping up your grades, ladies?'' in return.
For Frederick Holliday, these daily visits - he has dropped in at least once on all but 15 of the city's schools since coming here - are meant to leave an impression: on teachers, that the lackadaisical preparation and disorganization some schools accepted in the past will no longer be tolerated; on parents and the general community, that a close eye is being kept on their schools and the way their money is spent; and on principals, that they had better keep their buildings in a manner conducive to learning.
Yet Dr. Holliday says there is another, more basic reason for his visits: to let the students know that although what is demanded of them may seem hard, ''we feel that this is where they belong.''
After a brief chat with the school's principal and a swing through the teacher's lounge, the superintendent is about to leave when a lanky black student walks up sprightly, hands clasped behind his back. It's the ninth-grade class president, and he's telling Dr. Holliday that the school's gym has had insufficient heat for the pastweek. ''Can something be done?'' the student asks.
Dr. Holliday makes a quick investigation with school officials, directs them to have the heating unit repaired, and heads off to another school, leaving a satisfied ninth-grade politician behind.
A few blocks away, the superintendent frowns as he enters East Technical High School. The object of his disdain: a solitary word of graffito scrawled on a door. Some might consider such violations rather minor in the greater picture of education. But for this educator of more than three decades, any laxity risks being translated into general disorder and detracts from a school's enterprise. ''I'm not satisifed with this,'' he concludes.
Inside the building, Dr. Holliday whispers a quiet message to what appears to be a hall monitor, then continues on, greeting students, acknowledging teachers, being very visible. Leaving by the same door he entered, he turns around, and a smile replaces what before at the same spot was a frown.
''That's what I like, quick action,'' he says. The door, which only 10 minutes ago sported its graffito, has now been wiped clean.