What makes for a good high school?

"You've got to put pressure on the kids," said James Ball, principal of Los Angeles High School, after he spoke to a workshop at Howard University last week. It was part of a national conference on EXCEL, the education program that the Rev. Jesse Jackson has begun.

"After the Watts riots PTAs were considered bourgeois organization, at my school," Ball said "so I used counselors and intake rooms to put pressure on the kids. If we found them in the halls we'd take them in the intake room and hassle them. . . if we caught them in the halls three times we'd call their parents in. You've got to put some pressure on the kids to counteract the pressures that are pulling them out of the classroom."

Once he gets the students out of the halls and off what he calls a "flexible schedule" - one that allows them to come to school at 10 a.m. and leave at 10:30 a.m. - Ball has been putting the students in Jackson's EXCEL progrma.

Last week educators, parents and students from schools in Los Angeles, Chicago and Kansas City, where EXCEL programs are currently under way, and from 23 other school systems that have expressed an interest in the program, came to Howard for a conference.

The basic premise of Jackson's program is that school children need a "high moral atmosphere," and encouragement at home and at school from parents, clergy and teachers in order to do well in school.

Jackson told his audience he wants to challenge today's youth so that they realize "the choice is theirs: they can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains."

"Motivation must be seen as important and a critical element in turning this crisis in education around," Jackson told the conference. "We must teach our children that if they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude . . ."

As Jackson conceived it, the program starts with students signing pledges in which they promises to "push for excellence by striving to learn as much as I possibly can . . . I will respect the authority of my parents and accept the help of my teachers . . ."

Parents pledge to pick up their child's report card and make sure the child studies for two hours. Teachers pledge to "use all means available" to educate students and instill discipline and respect in them.

"It may sound juvenile, hokey," said Ball, the principal from Los Angeles, "but it works. It is hard for an outsider to understand. Really the change was dramatic."

There are 11 Los Angeles high schools in the program. It is funded by $402,000 grant from the school board. Each school has an EXCEL council that decides how best to apply Jackson's ideas at their school. At Los Angeles High School, according to Ball, the principal and the council decided to increase the number of hall sweeps to urge students cutting classes to sign the EXCEL pledge. If a student repeatedly found in the halls and refuses to join EXCEL his or her parents are brought to the school and the parents is asked to get the student involved in EXCEL.

EXCEL schools also receive funding for a tutor who works a half day with EXCEL students to help them improve their grades. Funding also is provided to hire a community liaison who spends the day at school observing EXCEL students' progress. The liaison then reports back to parents on what can been done to help the child do better.

Jeff Schiller, chief of assessments of innovative developments of the National Institute of Education, which has studied the program said, "what we found is that the program is more than Rev. Jackson's rhetoric. Quite a sophisticated structure remains, after he leaves to accomplish the program's goals."

Schiller said there has been no objective evaluation of EXCEL's effectiveness although there has been widespread praise of the program voiced by most of the people involved.

Calvin Rhone, a Los Angeles High senior who attended the conference, said EXCEL has not been a cure-all for problems at his school.

"EXCEL is merely an eye-opener," he said. " . . . but by surrounding one of the people who are out on the campus cutting classes with it, it is almost impossible for them not to know that something is going on . . . EXCEL is strong external stimulation to do good in school."

"There's a great possibility it could be a fad," he added, "but that depends on the attitude and effort of the individual student."

In speeches to the conference Jackson repeatedly stressed that the impetus for the EXCEL program was that blacks need to "catch up."

"We must excel because we are behind," Jackson told the mostly black audience. "There is one white attorney for every 680 whites, one black attorney for every 4,000 blacks; one white physician for every 649 whites and one black physician for every 5,000 blacks . . ."