IT'S SHORTLY after 9 on a Monday morning, and Northern High School's office is buzzing with activity. The seats outside Principal Helena Nobles-Jones' office are already filled. Soon Nobles-Jones emerges, looking resplendent in a gold suit with slacks and knee-length jacket.
She's a tall woman -5 feet 9 inches, at least - and her bearing is almost regal. Her Afro, speckled with gray now, could almost be a crown. She gets right down to business.
Why are you here?" she demands of one girl. The voice is firm but with a touch of motherliness.
"I'm here about what happened Friday," the girl answers.
"The fight on the bus?" Nobles-Jones asks.
"Who are they?" Nobles-Jones asks, indicating two other girls sitting with the first girl.
"They're my witnesses," she responds. 'Mr. Johnson [a Northern assistant principal] said I had to bring witnesses."
Nobles-Jones asks the two girls if they have passes from their teachers allowing them to be out of class and in the office. When they answer no, the principal lays down the law.
"Get a pass from your teachers - now!"
With that business complete, Nobles-Jones' next task is taking a student and her father into her office to discuss whether the girl's suspension was justified. While there, two young men are brought in for smoking marijuana. They reek of the weed but loudly proclaim their innocence. While they wait to see an assistant principal, Nobles-Jones comes out of her office and asks the two boys why they're there. They look at her as if they haven't the vaguest notion why they're in the office. When they're told they're in for smoking marijuana, she grabs the hands of each boy and sniffs. The odor lets her know the boys' denials are bogus.
"Get them out of here," she says to the security guard who brought them in. "I'm allergic to that stuff." The boys go to the counselors' office for a lecture about the perils of drug use.
"We try to find out why they use that stuff," Nobles-Jones tells a nosy columnist.
Nobles-Jones was hired in August to succeed Northern Principal Alice Morgan Brown, who brought problems at the school into the national limelight when she suspended, en masse, two-thirds of the student body when they refused to return to homeroom class. In the wake of that suspension, we soon learned that students roaming the hallways, taking drugs and assaulting each other were par for the course at Northern.
School violence has dropped since Nobles-Jones took over. School officials reported 20 assaults in January 1998 and nine last month. There were 43 percent fewer assaults in the 12 months ending in January this year than in the preceding year. Visitors to the school Monday would have noticed that as the time approached 10 a.m., there was nearly pin-drop silence in the hallways.
What is being done at Northern under Nobles-Jones' stewardship that wasn't being done before?
"It's a staff of persons realizing what they needed to do all along, Nobles-Jones says. More students now trust the staff to handle problems "rather than take things into their own hands."
Nobles-Jones drives up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway every morning to her new job as principal of Northern. She spent most of her career in education in the Washington school system as a principal and an assistant superintendent. She's handled schools that were every bit as tough as Northern.
School officials in the nation's capital sent Nobles-Jones at one point to be principal of Ballou High School. Nobles-Jones described the Ballou she took over as almost mirroring Northern before she arrived.
"There was a lot of chaos, confusion, no direction," Nobles-Jones recalls. "But I grew to love the children. Test scores went up, attendance went up."
Her love of education was instilled in her, she says, by her father, a sharecropper in Kinston, N.C. Even though he was denied a chance to be educated, he instilled in his daughter a passion for learning. Nobles-Jones was valedictorian of her high school class and got a scholarship to North Carolina Central College, where she majored in English.
Nobles-Jones recently retired as superintendent of middle and junior high schools in the D.C. school system. She was working and making good money in the private sector when a friend urged her to take over the principal's job at Northern.
"Don't ask me how I got on that B-W Parkway for an interview," Nobles-Jones says. "I had to submit. To this day, I don't know why I submitted."
Nobles-Jones' daughter, Kyva, may have had something to do with it. A student at Towson University, Kyva made taking the Northern job seem like a duty.
"Mommy," Nobles-Jones remembers her daughter telling her, "these kids need you, and you know you can go over there and help them."