NO ONE KNEW quite what to expect when Helena Nobles-Jones moved into the principal's office at Baltimore's Northern High School two years ago.
An outsider in a town of home-grown principals, Nobles-Jones had retired from the District of Columbia school system to take the reins of a school in deep trouble. Her predecessor at Northern had once suspended 1,200 students in a dramatic show of frustration. Academic standards were lax. Morale was low. Students came to school in various states of undress.
I watched Nobles-Jones on the first day of school that fall and knew then that she would succeed. She was everywhere at once, visible and firm, good with the media, good with visiting North Avenue types, good (most importantly) with the students. She hugged those in need of affection, but young ladies in scanty attire were dispatched to put on something appropriate; a strict dress code was enforced from Day One.
At an opening assembly, Nobles-Jones advised her students to "judge me by what I do, not by what I say."
Last Friday was Nobles-Jones' last day at Northern, and Monday was her first day on a new job as principal of Flowers High, a new math, science and technology magnet school in her home county, Prince George's.
Nobles-Jones, 55, said she had accomplished most of what she'd set out to do at Northern. "I raised standard after standard," she said. Attendance rules were enforced, and overall attendance increased by 10 percentage points.
Nobles-Jones said she tried to "empower" her administrators and staff. "Teachers are only as good as kids' learning is," she said.
Her biggest challenge? "Stopping the tough-guy masquerade. Under the tough exterior, these are kids trying to find their way in a nasty world. I wanted them to place their trust in me and to show respect to everyone."
Nobles-Jones praised two "partners" in the Northern rescue: Morgan State University and the Abell Foundation.
And she had a parting word of advice for the city's education leaders: Pay more attention to the zoned high schools and put more resources into them.
"Funding for these schools has to increase," she said. "Sixty percent of the city's high school kids are in zoned schools. They deserve at least the same level of funding as the citywide schools. ... This city cannot afford to lose the first child because of a lack of resources."
Florida public schools debate voucher program
In October, I visited and wrote about the first two public schools in Florida to be affected by a voucher program under Gov. Jeb Bush's "A+ Plan for Education." Judged the two worst schools in the state on the basis of a single 90-minute standardized test, A. A. Dixon Elementary and Spencer Bibbs Academy in Pensacola had lost 57 students who used state-financed vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.
Seventy-eight other failing Florida schools, including seven more in Pensacola, were on notice that earning a second consecutive F on the 2000 test would put them on the voucher list, too.
The 2000 report cards came out last week, and both Dixon and Bibbs moved from the F list to the D list. Moreover, none of the 78 schools in danger failed this year, largely because student performance in writing improved dramatically. (At Dixon, for example, the passing rate in writing jumped from 28 to 94 percent.)
"I'm elated, and I rejoice for those teachers, principals, parents and students who worked so hard," said Jim May, the Pensacola superintendent. "But I'm still saddened that the measure of a school's total quality is an hour-and-a-half exam given each year to different groups of students."
The question last week was whether the statewide improvement could be attributed to the threat of vouchers. The pro-voucher Institute for Justice predictably claimed victory for school choice. "The threat of competition" caused failing schools to reform, said Clint Bolick, the institute's director of litigation.
But in Pensacola, to which the media had flocked last fall to observe the worst schools in Florida, the view was quite the opposite. "We attribute to the voucher system low morale, increased sick leave among teachers, many early retirements and the resignations of some very good teachers," said Barbara Frye, district spokeswoman.
May noted that, for the purpose of comparison, the law requires that recipients of "opportunity scholarships" - Bush's term for the vouchers - also take the state tests. Those scores haven't been released by the state, May said, "and I'm wondering why. Unless I get a stay-put order, as soon as I get them, I'll make them public."