Suitland High School Principal Joseph Hairston flips through an eight-inch stack of computer printouts until a statistical discrepancy catches his eye.
"Here's somebody that likes her talented and gifted class and doesn't like her other classes," he said, pointing to one number among columns of test scores and grades designed to signal weaknesses, teacher-by-teacher and pupil-by-pupil. "And here's somebody that gave 73 percent of the kids a D or an E. Something's going on there. Something's wrong."
Hairston's office is piled with similar statistics, broken down by age, sex, ethnic group -- information that was unavailable to most of his predecessors. And, unlike generations of principals before him, Hairston is operating under the influence of corporate "data-driven" management theories and tomes of research on how to be a successful principal.
It's a new age for principals. The tools are different and so is the mandate. Like Davis Martin, his counterpart at University City High in Philadelphia, Hairston was hired because he is known as an organizer who can snap a school into shape. Now these principals are trying to juggle new responsibilities for instruction while management problems are far from solved.
Hairston is relying studiously on the models and the research. He uses flow charts with labels like "program administration" and "operations administration." He created an "administrative team" and an "instructional council" to help him run the school and design curriculum.
He uses phrases like "quality circles" and talks about decision-making and problem-solving "at the closest level of participation."
All of this has become a "system" for Hairston, who was sent a year ago to intervene at Suitland, a school tainted by years of racial tension, low academic achievement and confrontations with the neighborhood.
"I'm no great savior," Hairston said. "I had to come in with a methodical system."
Prince George's County Superintendent John A. Murphy said he assigned Hairston to Suitland because he wanted to see a dramatic turnaround, "to prove the kind of success I'm talking about can happen -- you can take a school with the worst reputation and make it one with the best reputation."
Hairston, previously principal at Crossland High School in the county, said he felt he was working in a goldfish bowl this year. Not only did he have to turn the school around and raise test scores, he also had to set up a college-preparatory component and a new arts program, the equivalent of two new schools.
The year has not been altogether smooth. Relations with his teaching staff have been tense and once came to a breaking point when he recommended that 17 teachers be transferred out under a seldom-used contract provision.
"He does some things extremely well, but he's extremely autocratic," said a teacher who asked not to be named. "He's very task-oriented, not very human-oriented."
"He runs a dictatorship here," said another. "There's no trust in the teachers . . . . He does not listen to what's wrong."
But Hairston said he sees reasons to be encouraged about the school, particularly when he looks at all those numbers piled up in his office. For example, 81 percent of his ninth-graders passed a state-mandated citizenship test given in April -- one of the highest pass rates in the county. That compares to last year's 26 percent.
At the beginning of the year, Hairston set out new rules and stricter procedures for dealing with discipline, stationed teachers in the halls with two-way radios and did away with a controversial "open lunch" period that had invited trouble when students left campus each day.
As a result, he won a community award this spring for helping to drive down crime in the community. And Murphy said he believes the school has improved. "You see people in classrooms engaged in learning activities," he said. "Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case."
"Conduct has improved 100 percent," said Vice Principal Tony Liberatore. "It's because of Joe."
Like a chief executive officer, Hairston tends to work through channels. He does not see himself as the traditional principal, in the halls, greeting students, learning every name.
"The persona, the symbol of leadership, that's fine," he said. "They don't have to see me every day. More important, they have to feel me in the classroom . . . . If everyone's going to stand around and watch me, nothing's going to get done."
He is friendly with the students as he walks through the sprawling Suitland complex, but he purposefully limits his day-to-day contact with them. "When they come to see me, it's after they've exhausted all points of the process," he said.
The students give him mixed reviews, while teachers and staff describe him in dramatically conflicting terms. Some teachers say he is the best administrator they've worked for; others sharply criticize a style they say is authoritarian and distant.
"Joe tends to let us be the communicators," Liberatore said, speaking of Hairston's reliance on senior staff. "We're his implementers.
"He's a business manager . . . . In a situation like this, the size, with the number of projects, the number of buildings . . . the days when you had one little building and a few hundred students, those days are over . . . . Education is big business."