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Dealing with today's high school students. Principals discuss challenges of motivation and discipline

Passivity, a lack of motivation toward learning -- that's an impression of today's students frequently voiced when you ask high school principals about today's youngsters. ``I don't think kids question and challenge enough,'' says Eugene Hawley, principal of Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H. In the '70s, he recalls, high schoolers were raising a ruckus ``and on the right things.'' Now, he observes with a chuckle, they ``accept whatever I tell them.''

Mr. Hawley, who's quick with both observations and laughter, was among 8,500 principals gathered here recently for the annual convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He's also the association's newly elected president.

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What about discipline? Are students today giving administrators more problems than in the past? ``Just Mickey Mouse stuff,'' says Hawley, though he adds that teen suicide and drug use continue to point to deep-set problems among today's adolescents.

By contrast, O. L. Sherrill is just as happy to see the ``rebellious type of discipline problem'' he experienced in the late 1960s become a distant memory. During 20 years as principal of Asheville High School in Asheville, N.C., he has seen students' behavior ``definitely improve.'' Are they ready to learn? ``At least they're willing to cooperate,'' he says, but ``apathy'' is a hurdle.

Another perspective comes from a Canadian principal, Bill Footz, of Hillcrest Jr. High School in Edmonton, Alberta. He's seen no notable change in students over the past decade. ``There's not much difference,'' he says. ``Kids are kids.'' And when it comes to discipline, he's as inclined to point the finger at poorly prepared new teachers as at their students. ``Most first-year teachers who fail do so because they can't control a classroom.''

Other things affecting student behavior, says Mr. Footz, are rapidly changing social conditions, especially the increasing frequency of divorce.

That's a theme echoed by James Bridgeman, principal of Goodpasture High School, a private secondary school in Madison, Tenn. In many of his students' homes, both parents work, often as well-paid professionals. The school makes a strong effort to get parents involved when discipline problems arise with children, says Mr. Bridgeman, and if that effort succeeds the discipline problem is solved.

But at his school, as in many public schools apparently, motivation is a central challenge, he says. ``Too many are satisfied with a `C,' '' he laments.

In the country's northern tier, South Dakotan Janet Varejcka faces a similar kind of problem, though with a much different student body. Bennett County High School in Martin, S.D., brings together youngsters from ranches, farms, and Sioux Indian reservations. ``We have to fight a certain nonchalance, an `I don't care' attitude,'' says Ms. Varejcka.

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Her biggest discipline problem is the pervasiveness of chewing tobacco. Many of these country youngsters -- she calls them ``rodeo kids'' -- have been using the stuff since they were in third grade. There's a strict rule against spitting in the halls and classrooms, but enforcing it is a never-ending task, she says. Still, this veteran of 19 years in education feels her students are ``fairly respectful of authority.''

You see waves of change in student behavior, ``from the long-haired, `hippie' stage into the stage when they saw no purpose,'' observes Garnet Campbell, principal of Spotsylvania High School in Spotsylvania, Va. The trend is now toward ``dressing better, cleaner, and improved attitudes,'' he says. Countering what many other principals have indicated, Mr. Campbell believes a majority of his students ``seem to feel a need to learn in order to be successful.''

The percentage that is disrespectful in class is ``extremely small,'' he says. That, he adds, may be a testament to better-motivated teachers who have been given a greater sense of purpose by the recent push for education reform.

Jenny Pennington, principal of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School in Schenectady, N.Y., agrees. ``The whole thing,'' she says, ``is making it clear to students what's expected of them, and what the reward is.'' And that clarity comes through motivated teachers. ``Teachers have to perceive they're involved in something new and different, and kids will feel this.''

Second of two articles on interviews with secondary school principals. The first ran Monday.

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