The remarkable attraction of parents to Arlington's back-to-basics Page School, which has them scrambling to enroll their children there, is a mystery even to principal Frank Miller.
Perhaps only in the 1980s would concerned parents camp out on the school lawn, as they did last week, to vie for a few openings for their children in a school that is an alternative to an alternative. A decade ago, alternative schools meant open classrooms and "freedom." But in the last few years, Page School, with its emphasis on structure and discipline, has become the new educational vogue in Arlington.
"It's almost as if there were a mission over there," said Page PTA president Joan Pearson. "I don't like to say to much about it. It really is a good thing, and the more publicity it gets, the more people might resent it."
Words of praise for the school have spread from parent to parent in the 2 1/2 years since the program was established. They come to the one-level bulding at 1501 Lincoln St. to enroll their children in a program that stresses strict guidelines of behavior, self-contained classrooms, promotion based on standards of achievement, required homework and emphasis on basic learning skills.
"We have something here that's not only unique, but unequaled for its standards of excellence," said Bud Hancock, a former educator whose two children transferred to Page from neighborhood schools.
In addition to the strict approach to instruction at Page, parents and teachers agree Miller and his vigorous application of the rules have made this alternative a success.
A large, sort-featured man from a small town in Iowa, Miller attributes much of his success to his belief in God.
"I think it's important to instill a lot of my religious beliefs here in school, at the same time honoring other people's beliefs," Miller said in a recent interview.
Miller, 42, is a "born-again" Christian who belongs to an evangelical Presbyterian denomination.
While religion is not part of the program at Page, nor at any Arlington school, Millers says his beliefs guide his approach to education.
"My view on discipline is a carryover and extension of my religious beliefs that children have to be instructed in the right way to behave rather than the wrong way," said Miller. "And I feel very strongly that the relationship between teacher and student must be a loving relationship."
Once that relationship is established, Miller contends, a teacher can discipline a child without breaching a basic commitment.
As the chief disciplinarian at Page, Miller metes punishment to children who misbehave. The standard punishment is forfeiting an after-lunch recess, he said, but in some cases, he would advocate spanking a child, a practice which currently is outlawed.
"I think there might be some students who might benefit from corporal punishment," he said. "I feel if it had to be used it should be done judiciously and by the principal."
At the same time, students seem to warm to Miller. He knows nearly all the 375 Page students, although he admits that he gets a few mixed up. He greets them almost every morning, is one the playground at every recess and attributes this closeness to his own experiences in Early, Iowa, population 700.
"I went from first to twelfth grade in the same building," he recalled "and graduated in a class of 14 -- 11 boys and three girls. I felt I got a pretty good education in that little school, and aspects of that can be applied to an urban setting."
Miller came to Arlington in 1967 to teach math and in 1972 became a math curriculum specialist. The new job gave his an opportunity to visit all the elementary schools in the system. "I got the idea I'd like to become a principal," he said.
Three years ago, he applied for the post at Page, and won the job after the school board found that Miller's views on structure and behavior were compatible with the board's mandate to establish a traditional alternative school.
Page opened its doors with grades one through five. Sixth grade was added in 1979; kindergarten and seventh grades in September. Parents are now lobbying to include an eighth grade, although the school board has nixed the idea for the coming year.
Page's boosters dwell on Arlington's need for educational choice. But school board member Torill B. Floyd sees some danger in the alternatives. There are two other alternative schools in Arlington, both with open classrooms, and waiting lists as long as the one at Page.
"There's a conflict between parents who want to keep the neighborhood schools while at the same time pupils are drained off to alternative schools," said Floyd. "Sometimes, it's because the minority population goes up in a local school and the alternative is a way for parents to get away from that. That's something I don't like to see because diversity is good." Page had 28 black pupils out of 300 last year.
"I think we need to take a look at the whole issue of alternative schools in the near future," said Floyd.