The appearance of high school principal Joe Clark and his baseball bat on the cover of Time magazine recently marked a peak in public awareness of the problems of urban principals, probably the greatest showering of attention since the era of "Up the Down Staircase" and "Welcome Back, Kotter." Clark is the Paterson, N.J., high school principal whose tough and colorful methods of maintaining discipline (of which the baseball bat is only a symbol, not an active instrument) have brought order to a previously chaotic school and wrath from those who fear he sacrifices "problem" students without giving them enough of a chance.

Principals of public high schools in this area hold a full range of opinions on Joe Clark. But all seemed to agree on one saving stipulation: the question of how to run a school isn't one of absolutes. All hesitated to judge Clark without knowing exactly what he faces in the course of a day -- or to endorse any one approach to student discipline over another.

"To be a successful administrator, you have to have more than one style," says Edmund Milard, principal of Backus Junior High in the District. "I've seen styles from the laissez-faire to the authoritative; you have to use different styles as the climate dictates. If Mr. Clark is doing as I understand he's doing -- and you never can know the whole story -- then at some time as circumstances change I imagine he'll be using a different style."

"His method obviously works in his situation," says Joseph Hairston, principal of Suitland High School in Prince George's County. "I don't think the level of sophistication in this metropolitan area would allow it, frankly. It's just not the way we get things done here, with a baseball bat. But you've got to commend the man. Before he got there, his school was in pretty bad shape. You can't take anything away from him. Maybe we couldn't handle that.

"The baseball bat has been misinterpreted, I think," he adds. "A baseball bat is emblematic of the consciousness that you have to take a hard line as a principal to create the kind of culture that's conducive to teaching and learning. That's the message we're missing. You have tough-minded principals all over the country that no one's paying any attention to. At this school, our tough-mindedness is different -- we generally use a more corporate or businesslike approach. The tough-mindedness comes in having a really strong philosophy of what we do here and sticking to it, keeping it in mind, making sure everyone knows what we stand for and what we're about."

"Let's go back to what parents want," says Ralph Neal, principal of Eastern High School. "Most parents, most students, want a school where people feel safe, where they can come and learn. Joe Clark produced an atmosphere of safety; I can do the same thing, but using a different method. I believe you can't just produce a climate -- you have to put in programs to serve all the people involved. If you've got a kid who's been here six years and isn't learning, you have to have programs to refer him to. The District has such programs. People learn in different ways and at different rates; you're giving them a way to succeed and a way to get back in the mainstream. I believe in rewarding students; I believe in doing things in a very positive way. I am firm, flexible and fair. But you've got to use what method you find is necessary to improve the situation."

"After I read about him, I wanted to send him a letter saying hang in there," says Reginald Moss, principal of Alice Deal Junior High in the District. "I identify with his problems, though I don't have any problems anywhere near that magnitude. A lot of what he's trying to do I think most of us sympathize with here. I personally have never been in a school where I had to use those kinds of methods -- I do use a bullhorn, and they're teasing me about it this week, but a bullhorn saves your voice in the cafeteria. It's not for patrolling the halls. Here, we've always thought, 'Policy, order, consistency, expectancy.' And really, that's what Joe Clark is doing. Once you have order, you can have some other things."

Moss echoes another common reaction to the attention paid a principal when he asks, "Why, you have to wonder, does Joe Clark stick out? Why is this man seemingly the only person in the building who does anything? He shouldn't have to be. I don't think many people understand what a principal has to do." Hairston of Suitland agrees: "If people really knew the life of a high school principal, we'd get more support. We make more decisions in an hour than a corporate executive."

Principal Weyland Wallace of Garnett-Patterson Junior High echoes the point when asked if this is a good time to talk. "No such thing as a good time," he barks. "I'm busier than Lee Iacocca. I just don't make $20 million a year."

Amy E. Schwartz is a member of the editorial page staff.