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'Principals for a Day' get to know their local schools

Influential New Yorkers learn about needs and what they can do to help

April 29 was a day of surprises for investment banker Leonard Harlan. Despite more than three decades spent working in New York, it was the first time he'd ever set foot in the South Bronx, much less spent a day at a school like South Bronx High School. And it was also the first time he realized that a principal in a New York City public school has no authority to hire or fire the teachers who work for him.

As a company president, Dr. Harlan was astonished at the information.

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"It's a group he's responsible for leading and yet he has no authority to weed out those who don't fit," he marvels. If he had to run Castle Harlan, the investment banking firm he heads that way, he says, "It would be like trying to do the job with my right arm tied behind me."

Harlan's surprise is exactly the kind of reaction the Principal for a Day program is intended to generate. Sponsored by the nonprofit group Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning, Principal for a Day aims to get businesspeople, politicians, actors, and other influential New Yorkers inside public schools and aware of what's going on there. Organizers stress the importance of bringing together the city's public and private sectors, and of making large numbers of busy but caring citizens more aware of the needs of students.

Mayor, actors participate

The program has been in operation since 1994. On a chosen day each year, all those interested in participating are assigned a school in the city. On April 29, the more than 1,000 volunteers included such well-known faces as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, and actors Billy Baldwin and Frances McDormand.

South Bronx High had another surrogate principal the day Harlan was there: Kim McGillicuddy, a community organizer for Youth Force, a nonprofit Bronx-based neighborhood advocacy group. The two were escorted during the day by Eduardo Genao, the school's principal.

They walked the halls with Mr. Genao, popped into various classrooms, toured the school's facilities and sought to understand the bureaucratic maze through which Genao must negotiate in running his school.

"I came away saying these people are absolutely heroes," Harlan says.

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"I don't think they're nearly appreciated enough for the job they do." He had high praise for the degree of cleanliness, order, and discipline he saw in the school, but remained appalled by what he saw as inadequate support for teachers and administrators.

Ms. McGillicuddy says her day at the school served to confirm her conviction that public-school employees "are doing really hard work."

The comments of both the South Bronx High visitors were echoed at the day's end by many of the other Principal for a Day participants who gathered at a press conference in Midtown. Speaker after speaker sang the praises of the public-school teachers and administrators they had observed in action. Many confessed that they had expected to find apathy and a lack of professionalism in the schools, and instead were bowled over by the degree of caring and hard work they saw evidenced.

Mrs. Clinton, who spent the day at a junior high in Queens, joined the other participants in praising "an incredibly dedicated corps of teachers and principals" and urged her listeners "not to scapegoat or point fingers at a very good system."

Some of the participants pledged money or resources to help the schools they had visited. Harlan has offered to take on two South Bronx High students as interns this summer to give them a chance to explore investment banking.

But he says he will also continue to search out other ways of contributing to the New York City school system. As a businessman, he proclaims himself still somewhat baffled by the conditions he witnessed at the school. He says he struggled to understand why four computer rooms at the high school are not yet connected to the Internet, why the building's deteriorating windows cannot be washed or replaced for two more years, and how a series of portable classrooms could possibly have cost $1 million a piece.

"The private sector could do that for a fraction of the price," he says. "My instincts tell me that you have to move decisionmaking down into the local areas. You have to decentralize authority and delegate it out." It troubles him that "the people servicing the school don't seem to have pride in their work."

Harlan was surprised by the degree to which bureaucracy in the school system and the related unions prevents a more efficient use of time and resources.

Still, the school was not nearly as intimidating as he had imagined. "To be honest, I came with a bit of trepidation," he confesses. "I thought the Bronx was all rubble and horror. But the image is not the reality."

He was glad to discover that there was no metal detector and that the security guards stationed at the door seemed to enjoy a friendly give-and-take with both teachers and students.

Actually, Genao explained to Harlan and McGillicuddy, despite its location in what is known as the poorest congressional district in the country, South Bronx High has many advantages. With fewer than 1,100 students it's a small school by city standards, and with a 92 percent Latino population it has a very homogeneous student body. Genao was proud to add that the school has an 85 percent graduation rate.

A principal and businessman compare notes

Genao has been in the New York City school system for 16 years now, and he and Harlan were intrigued to learn that their working habits are somewhat similar. Both regularly put in 12-hour days, and both feel the same frustrations about not being able to pack enough into that time period.

The big difference, Harlan was quick to point out, is that "[Genao] gets paid a trifle more than the top teacher and yet he has all the responsibility." Professionals like Genao, he says, are not always accorded sufficient respect. "We all want to be able to feel a sense of pride about what we do," he says. "That's easy for me in my profession."

But if on an ordinary day Genao has no one to empathize with his plight, the time he spent with Harlan clearly worked to win him a new champion. A few days after his day at South Bronx High, Harlan was still marveling at the demands of Genao's job. "He has all the responsibility for the school and yet substantially limited authority," he notes. "And yet, somehow," he adds, "It's really a very well run school."

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