WHEN Richard Marquez was 17, he did something nearly half of all Hispanic teen-agers in the United States do: He dropped out of school. Today, 23 years later, Mr. Marquez is doing something few other dropouts will accomplish: He is principal of a high school, in his case, Sunset High School in the racially and economically mixed Oak Cliff section of Dallas.
From his position, the father of four and chief administrator of nearly 2,000 students and teachers is able to put into practice a philosophy that combines authority with familiarity, strict rules with rule-bending - and puts kids at the top of his list of priorities.
Keeping a close eye on his flock - a large number of whom he knows by first name - Marquez says he is constantly reminded of his own past, and of what it's like to be that adolescent who feels he doesn't fit, or who fails to see the point of staying in school. Those are the ones who are likely to swell the ranks of the nation's dropouts, he says, the ones who need a little extra sign of care and concern.
``Each one of these kids is worth an entire program, if that's what it takes to turn them around,'' says Marquez, who ended up earning a master's in school administration once a stint in the military ``got my head on straight.'' But in the end ``it's not programs that save kids,'' he adds, ``but human beings, one-on-one, who save kids.''
Marquez gets in some of his own one-on-one contact with students before and between classes, returning smiles, hellos, and an occasional first name for the frequent, ``Morning, Mr. Marquez,'' or the more macho, quick upward thrust of the jaw. Soda cans are confiscated with a pleasant, ``Not in the halls, Jimmy, you know that,'' while infractions of the school's dress code meet with an incredulous stare and, ``Andrea, could you have forgotten overnight that we don't wear shorts here?''
One of Sunset's programs that Marquez is most proud of, and one for which his school has received local and national attention, is designed for repeating ninth-graders who showed every sign of ending up among the nation's millions of dropouts.
In its first year, the program, which took on 250 failed ninth-graders who had few or no credits, was a bigger success than Marquez and his teachers had expected. ``We were hoping to be able to pass 10 percent at the end of the year,'' says Henry Allen, a math teacher in the program. ``But it looks like we'll send over more than 20 percent,'' he adds, motioning to the main building where regular classes are held.
Students who have stuck with the program say it has made a big difference for them. ``Last year I don't think I stayed in school three whole days,'' one boy said, ``and this year I didn't miss three.'' They credit the program's smaller class sizes and individualized instruction and add that it was the attitude of their teachers and Marquez toward them that helped them establish new views of school - and of themselves.
``You really feel that Mr. Marquez and the teachers care about kids, and that makes a big difference,'' says Lisa Hutchins, who will pass to the sophomore class. ``[Marquez] is real in touch with kids,'' says Ruben Ramos. ``You see him everywhere, even at the mall, and he's always talking to kids. That makes him seem more human and down to our level.''
Ironically, this program actually went against the letter of Texas education reform. Statewide reforms, dating from 1984, effectively banned alternative programs by stipulating that all students be kept in the regular educational program.
Marquez says he understands the intent of the law - to ban the ``dual systems'' that too often resulted in shunting aside problem students until they finally got out of the school's way by dropping out. But he says such mandates eliminate the flexibility schools need to respond to problems.
``If these programs become a dumping ground, I can understand why they'd be discouraged,'' Marquez says. ``From the very beginning I stressed to my teachers that this would not be a dual system. These kids wouldn't be forgotten - but neither would there be special treatment.''
This year, a new law requires districts and the state education agency to develop dropout prevention programs. With a satisfied smile, Marquez notes, ``One year I'm violating the rules, the next year I'm doing what the state says has to be done.''
In passing the law, legislators noted that the Texas dropout rate is 33 percent: 45 percent for Hispanics, 34 percent for blacks, and 27 percent for whites. One study estimated that dropouts cost the state $17 billion a year in lost income and taxes, in higher crime and incarceration costs, and in unemployment and welfare benefits.
Marquez's efforts to address the dropout problem figure among the activities that have earned him a solid standing in the Dallas school district. ``He has moved through the system quite rapidly, performing well at every assignment,'' says George Reid, Dallas assistant superintendent for secondary instruction. Starting as a teacher in 1975, Marquez moved to middle school assistant principal, assistant high school principal, then elementary-school principal. He was named Sunset's principal in 1985.
Calling him a ``risk-taker and an innovator,'' Dr. Reid says Marquez is especially good at ``involving people'' - teachers, students, parents - ``so they feel they want to support what they helped to create.''
The issue of flexibility for schools is one of Marquez's favorites when he starts speaking broadly of education. He says the education reform movement of this decade has brought needed attention to schools. But he says it has also resulted in too many standardized responses from legislators and other non-educators who expect schools, as diverse as the people they serve, to fit neatly into molds.
Marquez takes the view that standardized tests - an element in much school reform - actually encourage mediocrity by emphasizing minimal achievement. ``That's especially true in urban areas,'' he says, ``where people start thinking that's all you have to fulfill.''
``Some people see a lot of these kids as disasters waiting to happen,'' he says, his conservative yellow tie loosened, ``but I see every one as a potential success story we can't afford to lose.''