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Principals share views on what reform has meant for them locally

For Garnett Campbell, principal of Spotsylvania High School in Spotsylvania, Va., the education reform movement has meant substantial and needed change. ``Before, we weren't changing,'' says this wiry young school administrator. Nudged by new state legislation, his 1,000-student rural school now has a much-bolstered curriculum. For one thing, Mr. Campbell notes, there are more ``gifted and talented programs'' for students who can handle advanced work. For another, a much stricter attendance policy is in place. Students who miss more than 30 days will be denied credit.

His teachers are squarely behind the reforms, he says. Their attitude is ``very positive -- both those with a few years' experience and those who've been there 20.''

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Mr. Campbell's perspective on educational reform was one of many represented at the recent convention here of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Principals from around the country shared views on what the nationwide move toward school reform -- spurred by such studies as ``A Nation at Risk: the Imperative for Education Reform,'' a 1983 presidential commission report -- has meant for them locally.

Not all were as positive as Mr. Campbell.

``We're in a state of confusion right now,'' says Fred Gibson, principal of Centralia High School in Centralia, Ill. Mr. Gibson has been a principal for 20 years. ``I've been evaluating teachers all those years,'' he adds with a note of exasperation. Now, he says, the state has stepped in and set up a training program for evaluators. It means spending 20 hours being trained by someone who's been in the profession less than half the time he has.

``If they'd simply let us educate, it'd be great,'' sighs this obviously reform-weary principal.

James Ross heads up Encinal High School in Alameda, Calif., a San Francisco Bay Area community. Ethnic diversity distinguishes his school; students speak as many as 44 languages. Reform has meant ``more accountability in terms of actual learning,'' says Mr. Ross, a big man with a ready smile. Proficiency examinations are the rule now, he explains, with ``social promotions'' -- moving students from grade to grade as their age dictates it -- a thing of the past.

But this presents some problems, he notes. ``What do you do with the kids who don't perform?'' asks Ross. ``Do you keep those kids in? What's to guarantee they won't fail again?'' The legislature hasn't dealt with these ``what ifs,'' he says.

In Detroit, Pershing High School's 2,533 students are having to go to school more hours, study more math, science, and social studies, and accumulate additional units for graduation, says principal Emeral A. Crosby. All are needed reforms, and have long been under way in Motor City schools, adds Mr. Crosby, who was a member of the ``Nation at Risk'' commission.

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Reform has its problems, he says, notably a shortage of teachers to staff all those added math and science classes. Schools in his city are scurrying for teachers.

State-mandated reform has sometimes ``hurt the small school,'' according to Janet Varejcka, principal of the Bennett County High School in Martin, S.D. Her school's 1,300 students come mostly from the surrounding farms and ranches; almost half are Dakota Sioux children from nearby reservations. With a new required emphasis on science and computer training, she says, courses in vocational agriculture and industrial arts have waned. ``Our kids can't get everything in,'' she laments, adding that some of them may really need the traditional vocational training.

On the positive side, she notes, reform ``has made parents and students more aware of where the emphasis in education is'' -- i.e., on mastering the basics.

At Burnt Hills/Ballston Lake High School in Schenectady, N.Y., principal Jenny Pennington also finds that it's hard to make everything fit. ``It comes down to the number of hours in a day,'' she says. Electives like fine arts and home economics are ``severely constricted.'' If such programs are to be maintained, she adds, an extra hour will have to tacked on the school day.

New York also requires yearly evaluations of every teacher. This means 88 evaluations each year instead of the 30 or so -- roughly one-third of her teachers -- she has been doing. The challenge, she says, ``will be making sure it won't be just a perfunctory thing.''

First of two articles. Friday: What principals think about today's high school students.

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