When the bell to change classes trails off, 5,023 pairs of feet start sliding on the polished floors of G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School.
Teenagers move up and down the outside stairway of the Spanish-style stucco building and along its shiny corridors. Thousands head for the portable classrooms built to relieve pressure on the 43-acre school.
Jeffrey Miller, the sporty, walkie-talkie-holding principal wends his way into the crowd, tapping a kid on the shoulder, calling a friendly "hey you" to another - and keeping an eye out for the little things that bring trouble.
Welcome to America's largest public high school. Built seven years ago, it is a $10 million operation that embraces 245 teachers, 14 security guards, two police officers. The school also raises $1 million for its budget each year through raffles and activities.
Unlike the violence-prone brick behemoths of the Bronx and Los Angeles, Braddock is a megaschool that works.
Braddock's rich array of classes and clubs and its small-college ambiance are no longer overshadowed by gang fights and drug deals. While most schools lament spiraling enrollment, at Braddock, size is an asset, many students and teachers say. Burgeoning enrollment makes it possible for students to choose from at least 25 advanced placement (AP) courses, to choose from three types of English classes - regular, honor, and college-level - and from more than 80 clubs. Braddock's size makes it possible for the teens to find their own groups of friends.
"Even though Braddock is overcrowded, it has unity," says Karen Zapata, a junior. "Everybody's really into Braddock: our teachers, our principal. It's incredible how they put Braddock together."
"The education, the school spirit, the friendship, the support teachers give us, it's all there."
Showcase for challenges
Located in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country - Dade County is the fourth-largest school district after New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles - Braddock Senior High School showcases the difficulties many school districts face with ballooning enrollment.
For several decades, large schools were in vogue as a way to offer students more opportunities. But in an era when small is considered beautiful, and large schools are often viewed as breeding grounds for trouble, Braddock stands out.
After all, this is a school where 3,800 students arrived in its opening month in 1990 - 900 more than anticipated. Where the 40 portable classrooms look anything but temporary. Where students eat lunch in two shifts, the first starting at 10:30 a.m. with 2,500 kids. Where pep rallies are staggered, because not all 5,000 kids fit in the gym. Where 11th-graders learn about the War of 1812 in the school's auditorium, in groups of 200. Where fleets of yellow buses clog the streets before and after school, causing serious traffic jams in the area.
Some parents are overwhelmed by the logistics. "It's chaos," comments Roberto Vila, a father of two Braddock graduates.
Dade County has just voted $249 million to build 16 new schools - a good start, but not enough for the eight high schools Dade County needs to handle student growth over the next five years, experts say. A high school costs roughly $35 million.
Yet despite huge odds, this overcrowded school offers a model for how other large urban schools can function.
Teachers admit the noisy portable classrooms are far from ideal, and many say they'd like to spend more time with students. But "it shows that with core leadership and dedication, these schools can function pretty well," says Bill Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug-Free School program at the US Department of Education. Mr. Modzeleski says that the school's success lies in its principal's ability to set rules and make kids accountable to these standards. "It starts in the school building, with the principal, and it cascades down. But it's hard work."
Palm trees and tropical hues
In contrast to the intimidating structures of many inner-city schools, the two-story adobe building, which winds around a palm tree-dotted courtyard, has the inviting hues of South Florida. Neither gun-toting police officers nor metal detectors greet students.
"We're not a prison, we're a school," says Mr. Miller. "I could put armed guards, but that would change the atmosphere."
But make no mistake about it. Beneath its airy feel is a ship tightly run by its chief.
Since coming to Braddock two years ago, Miller has put orderliness and discipline among his top priorities. His oversight of 5,000 students is a powerful challenge. He employs an apparently simple strategy: "Visibility is our key," Miller says. "We want to prevent big things from happening."
The principal makes no pretense of ever knowing every student's name. But he insists that students recognize him. And they do. "Instead of staying in his office all day he is out here," says student Erica Crespo.
Indeed, the students know that Miller hangs out in the courtyard at lunch time, that he's in the school's crowded parking lot before and after school, that he mingles with the crowd when they change class.
Sweating the details
Miller is also known for the exacting set of rules he's put in place: a surveillance system that has cut down on graffiti and fights; a strict dress code that, if violated, can lead to hours scraping gum off school floors or copying the school's regulations. Students know they can't leave campus for lunch and that trespassers will be prosecuted.
"There's no way we're going to have kids go out for lunch, otherwise we'd have students we'd never see again," says history teacher Victor Kensler.
Unlike two nearby high schools, which house 4,000 students each, the Braddock campus is closed for lunch. The challenge is to keep trespassers from other schools from sneaking in. It is a task that Jimmie Weathers revels in. One of 12 security guards at Braddock, he is a "floater," meaning that he mills about the campus all day. Mr. Weathers brags that he knows every face at Braddock. Dialogue is his main tool.
"When we see a problem, we jump on it," says Weathers, who in his shorts and T-shirt looks barely older than the pupils. He says he knows who's in a gang and who's been in trouble. "I can go to them and try to stop them, in case they're thinking of fighting."
Weathers came to Braddock three years ago, knowing it had a reputation as a place with gangs and drugs. But things began to change with Miller's emphasis on discipline. "He said, 'This is what I want.' And he shut down the gang fighting."
And not only gangs. Since coming to Braddock, Miller has waged a quiet battle against the small offenses he believes get in the way of students respecting their environment, like graffiti painting, gum chewing, littering, dressing "improperly," talking back to a teacher, and skipping school too often.
"Part of what we try to do is teach our kids they have a certain responsibility," Miller says. "I lecture them constantly about respect. They take ownership in the school."
The word has gotten around. Senior class president Melanie Carrasquillo says the school was "a lot crazier" before Miller came aboard. "He's really strict, but in a good way," she says."
For instance, vending machines can be turned off if garbage is left in the courtyard; girls wearing skirts that are too short and boys wearing pants that are too low can spend a day mopping the school's corridors.
Last year Miller also had 12 little rectangular cameras installed throughout the school. The $45,000 surveillance system was paid for with funds from the school's vending machines and concessions. A sign in the school's entrance hall makes clear that everybody is under surveillance. Guard Rob Rodriguez can spot students hiding in the stairwell, smoking in the bathroom, or starting a fight, and report them to security.
"It cuts down on fighting when the kids know there's a camera right here," says Larene Lantz, the assistant principal.
Some might feel uncomfortable with the idea of cameras "spying" on students. But Miller says a safe environment is key to learning. Having cameras beats paying a custodian to clean up graffiti, he adds.
Lots of kids, lots of electives
Karen Zapata loves dance. She could have auditioned for the New World Performing School of the Arts, Miami's selective magnet school for gifted dancers. But what she heard about teacher Irene Hassler's class prompted her to stay at Braddock.
"It's not only that we're all dancers," says Karen, a junior and one of 18 students in a competitive, professional-level dance class. "It's also that we give each other support - Miss Hassler brings out the best in us."
Likewise, students like Karen are why Hassler says she will never give up teaching at Braddock and in the public system. The reason has to do with Braddock's size. "The more enrollment the better," says the dance teacher. Hassler offers jazz, choreography, repertory, and music theory. Her students won first place in a countywide competition of public school dance programs.
"I get a lot of really good, good dancers," Hassler says. "I teach them as if I were teaching college students."
Indeed, just like a college, there is something for everybody at Braddock. Pupils can choose among six foreign languages, including Japanese. They can pick from a variety of vocational courses. The college bound can take Spanish literature, psychology, and a highly praised calculus class.
"That's one of the few advantages of size," says Miller. Class sizes hovers around 30. Advanced placement courses usually have between eight and 15 students.
Jennifer Cabrera's interest lies in children: She is president of Future Home Makers of America. This year, through an early-education class, she works with the children of teachers in an on-site child-care center. Xylka Molena, a reporter for Braddock TV, wants to become a nurse. When she graduates this year she will have her practical-nursing certificate. Melanie Carrasquillo wants to go far in college. She maintains a heavy schedule of AP courses.
The three young women are as different as can be in interests and in friends. But the three concur in their assessment of Braddock as a special place.
"The people at my job, when they hear I'm from Braddock, they say 'Oh, it's so dangerous,' " says Melanie, who works full time after school. "Our school is humongous, but it's awesome. It's like being in a mini-town: you meet lots of different types of people."
At lunch, the bell sends thousands of kids flocking toward the school's huge courtyard. With 2,500 adolescents chattering in the open air, the noise level is intense. But the students settle down fast.
Some sit at tables. Others wait in huge lines to get food at the school's concession stands. Most sit cross-legged on the floor, each group claiming a patch of concrete.
Melanie and Xylka wind up in opposite corners. Xylka is a "hip-hopper." Her friends wear dark pants several sizes too large and dark T-shirts, preferably Ralph Lauren. They hang out near the stairwell. Melanie belongs to the "vintage" crowd, which wears wide-legged pants and tight pastel shirts.
"Everybody sits by groups," explains Alf Urrutia, a "vintage." Other groups include the "ravers," the "alternative grunge," the "refs," as in refugees, recently arrived immigrants from South America.
Mark Lungreen feels that the school's size fosters harmony: "Nobody dislikes you because of your race or color."
That, most students say, is the real story of Braddock High School.