WHEN the white lady in brightly colored business suits and heels first started combing the blocks of tenements and abandoned buildings looking for her kids, the people in the neighborhood were sure she had lost her mind.
Every weekday morning at 8:45, she would begin incessantly blaring the names of children over a bullhorn and urge them to follow her. Curious residents watched her roam the streets, threading her way over broken bottles, empty crack vials, and gaping holes in the sidewalk.
``My first couple of months, I got a lot of: `I ain't talking to that [white lady],' '' elementary-school principal Roberta Kimmelman said, ``but now I think parents know the bottom line for me is the kids.''
Far from abstract debates about the merits and dangers of ``multiculturalism'' and ``political correctness,'' Ms. Kimmelman and a predominantly African-American staff are plunging ahead with a hodgepodge of experimental new approaches to race and education in the inner-city minority schools of Philadelphia.
The goal at the Gen. George Meade Elementary School isn't to bus promising minorities out of poverty, drugs, and crime. It's to turn their lives and school around here, in one of the city's poorest and most segregated neighborhoods.
Classes and programs at Meade don't try to ignore social class or be colorblind. They are designed for the overwhelmingly poor, African-American students.
The school's staff openly states that ``cultural differences'' exist between races and social classes but insists that it is not accepted as an excuse for poor effort or performance by students. They are expected to work hard, take responsibility for their actions, and obey a basic set of rules.
Staying in neighborhood
Kimmelman's office is cluttered with files, books, and untouched school-district forms. Abandoned buildings loom through her windows.
``I don't think anyone should have to leave their neighborhood to get a good education,'' she said, emphasizing that she is speaking for herself and not the school district. ``Don't tell me that these kids can't learn.''
Meade's 850 pupils are African-American except for four Hispanics.
Academic achievement in Philadelphia's schools - which are more than 90 percent minority - has generally lagged far behind achievement in desegregated schools.
``I don't think a desegregated school is necessarily the answer to these kids' problems,'' Kimmelman said.
``There's something inherently wrong with deciding that if there are white kids in a school it will improve the [minority students' test] scores.''
Many schools claiming they want ``diversity'' don't want to deal with poor minorities' problems, Kimmelman says. ``They don't want black kids, they want middle-class white children with black skin,'' she said. ``The problem isn't race, it's poverty.''
Last year, 97.3 percent of Meade's students came from families that qualify for low-income aid programs - a 7.3 percent increase from the year before. About 20 students live in four nearby homeless shelters.
``We need to keep these kids where they live,'' said Robert Nottingham, president of a neighborhood parents group. ``Kids [who] are being bused elsewhere - their teachers can't tell what's going on in their lives. The teachers here know if family problems are why a child is acting up.''
Mr. Nottingham is the unofficial principal. Tall, thin, and unflappable, he is neatly dressed in a black tie, gray slacks, and blue windbreaker. He has been crucial to developing special projects at the school and working with parents to help struggling students.
He credits Kimmelman's open-door, no-apologies approach for gaining community support. ``She's middle-class, she's white, she doesn't live in the area, but she comes here and deals with people eye to eye. She says what she means ... and she doesn't talk down to people,'' he said.
While she is clearly proud of her acceptance in the community, Kimmelman doesn't hesitate to criticize parents who neglect their children. A parent's problems with drugs, jail, or their own abuse aren't valid excuses, according to her. ``I say to them: `That's a shame, and I'm really sorry,' '' Kimmelman said, ``but you've got a kid with a problem here, and we have to do something about it.''
The school's staff tries to accommodate the split world many of its students are facing.
``They know how to act on the street, but they don't know how to act in mainstream America,'' Kimmelman said. ``I try to make it clear there are two sets of rules because I know some of the things I ask them to do here could get them killed on the street.''
Despite suffering a painful $376,000 cut in city and federal aid this year, Kimmelman has turned Meade into a showcase of experimental classes and programs. The school has gotten more than $500,000 in private grants since she arrived three years ago.
The 35-year-old brick, L-shaped school building has also changed dramatically.
`We are the future,' kids say
A red and blue sign at the entrance reads: ``We are the future of the world.'' Cinder-block yellow halls and brown tile floors have been brightened with colorful student art displays. Graffiti has been removed from the exterior, and the interior appears spotless.
Special classes have been created for students who aren't sent to pre-school and are age 7 or 8 when they arrive in school for the first time. Young students who show promise but struggle in class are not automatically failed.
A new staff position has been created that focuses solely on improving student attendance and discipline. Attendance has risen slightly, a success, she says, considering the rising poverty level at the school. After working with parents, student behavior problems have been reduced.
Social studies, music, and art classes have been revamped to include strong Afro-centric themes and to develop communications and conflict-resolution skills.
A decision to stop encouraging talented students to apply for busing to the city's desegregated magnet schools was made last year. ``Initially, I really pushed to get rid of our brightest students,'' Kimmelman said. ``Then I said: `Wait a minute, what are we saying about school here?' ''
The ``Challenge'' and ``Jr. Challenge'' programs were created this year. The two 25-student classes mix together promising third- and fourth-graders, and promising first- and second-graders.
As Kimmelman walked into the Jr. Challenge classroom, 25 excited first- and second-graders called out in unison: ``Good Morning, Ms. Kimmelman.'' The six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds squirmed in their chairs - desperate to be called on, eager to show off their work.
``This is a special class for kids,'' said beaming Dominique Cooper, ``We're the most important in the school.'' Without missing a beat, she began reading a story she had written: ``Martin Luther King graduated from high school when he was only 15 years old....''
Kimmelman later admitted that tracking pupils from first grade is a practice many educators would criticize. ``We have some kids that I know can make it and be anything they want, and I have a few kids who I know I can't help,'' she said, adding that the class's standardized test scores have improved greatly. ``I don't want anything to hold these kids back.''
New programs - including child care for working parents, a community health-care center, summer school, free meals, and General Equivalency Diploma and Head Start classes - have made the school a center for neighborhood social services.
More funding cuts are expected next year in city schools, but Kimmelman says more money isn't necessarily the way to improve a school. ``You've got to keep trying new things. The worst thing that happens is they don't work.''
The importance of test scores
Despite changes, however, Meade's overall test scores haven't significantly improved under Kimmelman. She said she knows Meade will be judged on test scores.
``We need to think of new ways to define education. Are my kids employable?'' she asks, her voice rising. ``They learn here that 8:45 means 8:45, and that you don't punch someone in the face just because they bump into you on the stairs. They learn to read and problem-solve. I'm worried about producing some citizens here,'' she says, ``not just test scores.''