Homeroom, Spingarn High School, 9 a.m.:
The smiling, fang-toothed face of Count Dracula stares from the pale pink wall at the 10th graders filing in. "Thank you for not cheating. Good advice from your teacher," says the caption above the count's head.
The boys bounce in, wearing their shiny white leather tennis shoes, and most of them take seats in the back of the room. The girls, some in designer jeans, some in '50s-style pleated skirts, take the front seats and proceed to touch up their shiny lipstick and pass around a record album of the "Endless Love" movie soundtrack, featuring a provocative picture of Brooke Shields and her make-believe lover on the cover.
Routine announcements pour from the public address system: when to sign up for cheerleading, what kinds of awards will be given for perfect attendance, what penalties tardy students will receive. Then comes the impassioned voice of principal Clemmie H. Strayhorn:
"I would like to remind everyone that our school beautification program is in progress both inside and outside Spingarn. Students are urged to stay off the grass. Our grass is sacred. I've told you before and I'll tell you again: STAY OFF THE GRASS!" Then, in a quieter tone, "This concludes our morning announcements. Have a pleasant day."
With a mixture of threats and enticements, rewards and punishments, a test of will takes place every day at Joel Elias Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington. Teachers and administrators struggle to keep order in the classroom and make sure that the students who want to learn have a chance. Some of the skirmishes seem minor, like Strayhorn's admonition about the lawn. Others go to the heart of learning.
Frequent visits to the school over the past semester, to a 10th-grade English class and an 11th-grade American history class, show teachers sometimes winning the battle, sometimes losing.
A few years ago, Spingarn had the reputation for being one of the city's more violent schools--a teacher was raped in 1975, and two students have been shot there since 1977. In 1979, Strayhorn, one of the school system's young trouble-shooters, was sent to Spingarn as principal to restore order.
Today, it is rare to see students hang around the halls or outside the building during classes. It is also rare to smell marijuana in the school's dimly lit, cavernous halls. Student fights are few. Spingarn, says School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, is "generally on the upswing."
Strayhorn seems to have won order. He's fighting now to upgrade student achievement.
A red brick building with broken windows, soiled walls and a tempermental heating system, Spingarn overlooks a Pepco power plant and Langston Golf Course from the corner of 24th Street and Benning Road NE. The school draws most of its students from the Kenilworth Courts housing project and the single-family brick homes on the residential streets spinning out from Benning Road. The school has 990 students. About 50 parents regularly attend the school's monthly Parent-Teacher Association meetings.
Spingarn's 11th graders are reading at the eighth-grade level, and have the lowest standardized test scores in reading of any city high school. As a result, emphasis at Spingarn is on teaching basic skills.
"Perhaps one of the negative spinoffs of the back-to-basics movement," Superintendent McKenzie says, "is that we became concerned only that students can read and write" and not with how well they "think, analyze and synthesize information." She says she wants the schools' curriculum to reflect both those concerns. But she adds, "We have a long way to go."
A look inside Spingarn's classrooms offers clues to where one city high school stands.
In 10th-grade English, teacher Sharon Williams, with hair in corn rows, and wearing brown jeans, vest and cowboy boots, is giving a quiz on the principal parts of verbs. The students are required to know the tenses of such verbs as "begin, began, begun" and "come, came, come." Those who finish the test early will be rewarded with a drink of punch in a Ronald McDonald paper cup.
The door bursts open. It is Kevin, late as usual. A broad-shouldered youth with close-cropped hair, he is wearing a flannel shirt, work boots and jeans. He's got a pen perched over one ear and a pencil over the other.
"Excuse me, Miss Williams, excuse me, I don't know what to do," he announces.
Williams explains the directions for the quiz once again for Kevin. "I don't have no paper," he calls out. A girl next to him grudgingly offers him a few sheets of looseleaf.
When Kevin finishes the test he rushes to the front of the room to get his drink of punch. "A toast to the class," he shouts as some of the students look up and giggle.
Some students still haven't finished the test when Williams begins going over the answers.
"Give me a sentence using the past tense of drink, Kevin," she says.
"She drunk her Kool-aid."
"Wrong. Percy, you give me a sentence."
"I don't know. Why you callin' on me?" the youth responds. Williams calls on another.
"How do you know a past participle?" she asks.
"I know, Miss Williams, I know," Kevin yells, even though she hasn't called on him. "The past is in the past."
"Yes, but how do you know a word is a past participle?"
"Hold up, hold up, I know," Kevin shouts, pulling down the arm of the girl next to him who has raised her hand to answer the question. "Uh, I don't know," he says at last.
An announcement over the public address system, for a student to report to the office, interrupts the lesson. Some of the students leave their seats and begin milling around the classroom, chatting about anything but past participles.
That is what it was like on many days in the English class--clowning and interruptions that bring the learning process to a halt and focus all attention on one disruptive student.
Sharon Williams says that for a teacher, one of the toughest jobs is just getting a class to settle down. Williams says some of her students seem to come to school to play rather than work, and her method of dealing with those students is basically to ignore them.
"If somebody is really bad and they want to answer a question, I won't let them," she explains. And indeed, on many days she ignores Kevin's outbursts. "Then maybe they'll see I'm ignoring them for a reason. What do you suggest I do? Send them to the principal's office? If everybody sent students to the principal's office for not doing their assignments . . . " She shakes her head at the thought.
There are some students at Spingarn who come to class regularly and on time, who don't clown around and who seem to enjoy school. Such is Richard, who started at Gonzaga College High School, a Catholic boys' school near North Capitol and I streets, then transferred in the ninth grade to public school.
Six-foot-three, Richard wants to be a veterinarian and spends his Saturdays frequently at the Bosley Animal Hospital on Capitol Hill, not far from the two-story, recently renovated house on 13th Street NE where he lives with his mother.
Richard gets mostly As and Bs on his schoolwork at Spingarn. But he wasn't always a model student. At Gonzaga, he says, he was flunking German and religion (a required course) and getting along badly with one of Gonzaga's religious brothers. That's when his mother decided to send him to Wilson High School, across town in upper Northwest.
Richard says he would often get on the bus for school but never arrive at Wilson. One day, he recalls, he got off mid-route because he saw a line of people waiting to tour the White House. He had never been inside the White House before, so instead of going to school he decided to take the tour.
Richard's mother soon found out about his class-cutting, he says, and decided that in 10th grade he would go to Spingarn, the neighborhood school, even though Wilson has a better reputation.
He says he finds Spingarn students a bit rougher than those he knew at Gonzaga. For example, when he wouldn't give his Spanish homework to a student who wanted to copy it, the youth moved to the desk next to his and showed him a gun. "Maybe it was a toy gun," he says, thinking back.
Somewhere between the Kevins and the Richards are most of the students at Spingarn. By and large, they are neither disciplinary problems nor model students. They sit quietly in their classes, sometimes participating, sometimes not.
For example, there is Karen. Seventeen years old and as dainty as a ballerina, Karen transferred to Spingarn's 11th grade this year from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She went to Ellington, she said, because she wants to be a singer or a dancer. But Ellington's environment is less structured than that of most other District high schools, and Karen says she soon found herself cutting classes and failing 10th-grade English. Her parents decided to send her to Spingarn, where administrators stalk the halls with walkie-talkies, shooing students into class.
Karen, who works nights at a downtown McDonald's for money to see plays like "Evita," is one of the leaders in Williams' English class. She's usually the one to serve as secretary when the class breaks into groups, or as team leader when it separates into teams to play a game.
Yet she says she often finds Spingarn's classes "so silly . . . . People are always making noise, doing things like beating on their desk. I know they're not learning anything. There are dudes who sit in the back and never do nothing."
Then there is Arthur, a tall, husky youth who comes to English class every morning and always takes the last seat in the last row. Arthur spends much of the class doodling pictures of cartoon characters, like "Speedy Gonzalez." When the class breaks into groups to do work, Arthur usually announces he doesn't want to work in any of the groups. Williams often winds up working individually with Arthur.
There is also Michael, a shy, quiet youth who is repeating 10th grade English. Michael usually sits in the first seat of the first row. He has difficulty reading aloud, so he rarely volunteers. He is enrolled in a remedial reading course and tries very hard. One day last December when Williams' English class had a substitute and the rest of the students were talking and milling around the room, Michael sat silently, reading the play "Three Sisters" by Anton Chekhov.
In his 11th grade American history class, teacher Ernest Faulkner believes in confronting students who are disruptive. He gets mixed results.
One day last fall, Faulkner said he was too "frustrated and fed up" to teach. So he simply stood outside in the hallway. Inside, students read their history books on their own or just did nothing. Occasionally he walked around the class, stopping to respond to a student's question.
On another day, Michael, 17, a slim youth in jeans and sneakers who looks much younger than his age, was taking a test on one of the chapters in his history book. His test paper had several words scratched out or scribbled over in ink, so Michael asked Faulkner for another copy of the test.
"This is the second time you've asked me for that sheet. Why don't you just take a piece of your own paper and copy it over?" Faulkner said angrily, loud enough for the whole class to hear. "You know, you have a problem," he said, glaring at Michael. "Why don't you bring your parents in to see me?"
"They be working when I come to school," Michael snarled back.
"Why don't you ask them to come at night to a PTA meeting?"
"My father be sleeping and my mother be tired when she gets home from work. And I don't want her taking the bus at night."
"I'm sure they'd come if you got suspended," Faulkner snapped back.
"Are you saying I'm not doing my work?"
"I'm saying you're not being successful," Faulkner responded.
"I'm trying." Michael lowered his head and began writing, making several errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Faulkner says Spingarn's administrators have told him he has a "problem with human relations." He says he is merely at a point where he is tired of his students' not bringing their books to class.
It frustrates him, he says, that he can't call on some of his 11th graders to read aloud in class because they stumble over words like "political" and "proclamation." It's embarrassing for those students who can't read well and boring for the others who can, he says.
"When you tell them to go home and study and they don't, when you give them the answers they need for a test and the next day you give them the test and it's like strange meat to them, when you call home and the parents say their children don't have any homework, then what does that say to a teacher?" asks Faulkner.
Faulkner, who usually dresses in casual slacks and crew neck sweaters, never suits, spent the first few weeks of school teaching reading, requiring students to pick the main idea out of a paragraph.
"Why do we have to do this," blurted out one of the girls during one of Faulkner's reading lessons.
"How many of you want to go to college?" Faulkner demanded. About six of the 26 students in the class raised their hands.
"If you take the SATs college entrance exams , you have to draw analyses between one thing and something else. If you don't know how to do this, you're going to be in trouble.
"Now some of you might think that in this city you don't need a college education," Faulkner continued. "But the only job you can get in this city without a college degree is policeman, fireman, bus driver and sanitation worker and they make only about $17,000 a year."
As in all city high schools, the majority of Spingarn's students are black. Faulkner says he tries to tell his students that they may face certain difficulties in the work world because they are black, but the students often seem to resist this kind of prodding.
"He's always talking about 'we as black folks,' " says one of Faulkner's students, echoing the complaints of several others. "People should just be people."
Despite the problems, Faulkner says he is not ready to give up teaching. He stays, he says, for the students who are interested in learning, those for whom the struggle seems to be going well. Without prodding, says Faulkner, they might be drawn down. "Like crabs trying to climb out of a bucket."