THE textbook budget is only $25 per student. In some classrooms, students can barely hear, what with carpenters' power saws whining in the halls. Then there's the science teacher assigned by the Board of Education. A disaster. He has survived in the system because other principals chose to pass their problem along rather than endure an exhausting dismissal process.
Small problems, perhaps, as things go in the New York public schools. (``School Opens With a Murder'' was the Newsday headline the day after summer vacation ended.) But Lottie Taylor isn't one to settle for less bad. She's on the phone, as she often is, wheeling and dealing like a general manager in the National Basketball Association.
Maybe she can find a graduate student to ``assist'' the disappointing teacher. She raises money herself for just such emergencies, so she can avoid delays and red tape. It's not strictly by the book. But her students can't wait while the bureaucrats play games. ``You do what you have to do to get the material across to your kids,'' she says.
Mrs. Taylor is principal of the A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem. Hailed by former Education Secretary William Bennett, the subject of a TV documentary, Randolph is an inner-city school that works.
Randolph is a minority school. Three-quarters of the students are black. Another quarter are Hispanic. Almost half receive public assistance. Yet more than 95 percent of Randolph graduates go to four-year colleges, many to the very finest. The dropout rate is less than 2 percent.
While concerned parents and a bright student body certainly help, Taylor is by all accounts the guiding force. ``She makes you believe anything is possible for these kids,'' says Martha Harvey, president of the school's Parents Association.
Yet Taylor's plaudits have not spared her the daily harassments and absurdities of New York's public school bureaucracy. Her story shows that to make an urban school work it's not enough to fight television and crack. One has to fight the system as well.
``It can wear you down,'' Taylor says. ``Yet I can't let that be an excuse to not educate the students the best that I can.
``If they want to fire me - no sweat,'' she says. ``I will go out into the community and work with the parents.''
THE first thing a visitor notices at Randolph is the order. The school occupies an old (1924) stone building on the fringe of City College next to the drug warren of St. Nicholas Park. Originally, Randolph was to be a model school, run jointly by the school system and the college. But 10 years of planning and union pressures diluted the idea.
The previous principal, a white male, fell victim to bitter racial politics. By the time Taylor arrived, ``things were just falling apart,'' recalls Margaret Ketly, a guidance counselor at the school.
Today, the wood is polished and the lockers work. Major renovation work is in progress. A uniformed guard greets visitors politely in a starched white shirt. Classes are purposeful and planned to the last detail.
Students waiting to speak with a visiting reporter (who arrives, sheepishly in this setting, 15 minutes late) are put to work stuffing envelopes. ``There is something to do every minute,'' Taylor says.
But this is not the macho order of principal Joe Clark of Newark, N.J., with his trademark bullhorn. Taylor shows that mothering qualities are no less important.
To be sure, she is a ``a tough, good lady,'' as one admirer put it. Taylor walks the halls between classes, admonishing young men who tower over her to remove their baseball hats and show some respect. The curriculum is demanding, and she drives her teachers hard. She is legendary for standing firm against the city and union bureaucracies.
``They can't touch me because I'm steel,'' she says, without exaggeration. ``Some people translate that into another five-letter word.''
But Taylor also attends to her students' smallest daily needs. Some live in disordered households and have trouble getting up in the morning. So Taylor raised money to provide computerized wake-up calls. (Boogie music followed by ``Hi. This is Mrs. Taylor. I'm here to remind you that you have a date at 8 so don't be late.'')
When the Board of Education ordered the schools to devote a day to workshops on drugs, AIDS, and the like, Taylor asked, ``One day?'' She raised the money - again, outside school channels - to install a full-time medical clinic.
She arranged the school year so that students who do poorly in the first semester can redeem themselves in the second. She's started an academic summer camp and done - it seems - a zillion other things. ``We are going to save these kids because they are mine,'' she says. ``You come to Randolph, and you are mine.''
Teachers get the same kind of attention: special programs, extra cash, pats on the back. The approach here does not fit neatly into conservative or liberal agendas; it's based simply on aspiration and respect. At the outset of each class, teachers, students, and parents all sign a contract laying out what they expect from the course and what they will do in return.
``Children have rights too,'' she says. ``That's a hard thing for a lot of teachers to accept.'' But with rights come responsibilities. Before they graduate, students devote 80 hours to community service - to give back a little of what the school gives them.
``From the very first day you step into this school, everyone here wants to accomplish something, wants to go someplace higher,'' says Vaughn Malone, the student body president. Mr. Malone wants to become a lawyer because, as he explains it, ``a lot of my brothers are in jail.''
There are city educators who think Taylor has gotten more than her share of glory. Yes, she's a good principal, they say. But look at what she has to work with: a new school, without entrenched faculty politics and a link with City College that is a magnet for grants. Randolph was planned to have a complete cross section of students, but Taylor has tilted the mix toward the best and brightest. There are grumblings about skimming the cream and leaving local ``zoned'' schools to deal with the rest.
``They do a good job, but they are not a typical school,'' says one school official who asked not to be named.
To be sure, Randolph isn't typical. Last year, 3,000 students applied for 115 places in the school's special pre-med program, funded by the Macy Foundation. The intellectual, Spike-Lee look is common in the corridors.
But Randolph also accepts underachievers and special-education students and lifts their sights as well. ``That's the success of it,'' says Mrs. Harvey of the parents association.
Taylor is a handsome woman with bronze skin and fierce protective instincts. The whole ``skimming'' issue sets her off.
As a youngster in Harlem, she recalls, her parents had to lie about their address to send her to a first-rate high school. What's so wrong with providing that kind of school for bright Harlem kids today? Randolph has a higher percentage of blacks than any other high school in Manhattan, she says.
``When I march [at graduation] I march with a whole class of minorities,'' Taylor says, with not a little indignation. ``What happened to these kids before A. Phillip Randolph existed?''
The key, she says, is giving principals the authority to do their job. ``Change will come at the school level with principals who say, `The heck with this bureaucracy.'''