WHEN POST reporter Athelia Knight first walked the halls of Washington's McKinley High School to begin a year's look at the trials, tribulations and successes there, Principal Bettye Topps was quick to voice her anxiety about what ultimately would be written. "She felt that the school was at a critical stage," Miss Knight wrote in the first of a series of articles that appeared in this newspaper this week. Miss Knight noted that the principal said to her, "almost coldly, that if I wanted to write about 'bad' teachers and 'bad' students, she could give me names and save me time. Was I willing to look at the whole picture? I told her I wanted to learn all about the school, but particularly wanted to find out what was happening inside the classroom. 'Fine,' she said. Then she reminded me again: 'The whole picture.' "

Last Tuesday -- before the series had even ended -- Principal Topps had organized a news conference at which students, parents, administrators and a school board member criticized the series for what they called its "negative" slant. But to capture and describe "the whole picture" at any school is not to magnify its successes -- and McKinley can point to many -- while glossing over the frustrations that everyone connected to it surely experiences. The spotlight of publicity is intense, and when it turns to the "negative," it does create discomfort among understandably self-conscious and proud supporters. Yet as some McKinley parents noted, the airing of a school's shortcomings can stimulate constructive concern and productive involvement.

McKinley was singled out because, as measured by its scores on standardized tests and by the percentage of its graduates who go on to college, it is an average school coping with the same problems that others schools have -- problems that frustrate, embarrass and anger those school communities in all-too-similar ways.

Peer pressure against academic achievement, for example, is by no means exclusive to McKinley; and reporting -- in the words of McKinley's own strongest supporters -- that it does exist is not an attack on the school's brightest students. Neither is the relaying of teachers' own descriptions of the difficulties they face in trying to capture attention and generate an appreciation for learning.

"The whole picture" includes the remarkable determination, energy and vision of many caring people and proud, productive students. They are there in the series as they are in the flesh, along with their hopes and ideas for what they summed up in their slogan for the year: "Renewing the Legacy -- Listening to the Past, Working for the Future."