McKinley High School Principal Bettye W. Topps shuffled through the 1,500 white and green attendance sheets and cards spread out on the dining room table in her Northwest Washington home. It was the end of a three-day holiday weekend in October 1986, and she had been poring over the records since Saturday morning, trying to find out if her new plan to improve attendance was working. The more she sifted through the records, she recalled later, the more she realized that they made no sense.

Improved attendance had been one of Topps' major goals for the 1986-87 school year. She was tired of students going to school late or not bothering to show up at all, and she was certain that poor attendance was hindering her efforts to create a better academic climate. If she was ever going to "renew the legacy" -- a school slogan that conveyed the faculty's desire to return to the days when McKinley was one of the best D.C. high schools -- she was going to have to lick the attendance problem first.

She unveiled her new attendance program at a faculty retreat just a few weeks before school opened. It called for a dramatic new approach: Official attendance would no longer be taken just in homeroom at 10:40 a.m. That was nothing more than an invitation to go to school late. Instead, attendance would be taken at 9 a.m. and again at 12:35 p.m., and school officials would call parents of students who were repeatedly tardy or absent.

In the first few weeks of school, Topps heard some teachers complain that the new system went beyond the job descriptions in the teachers' labor contract. But it wasn't until she sat down with the records during the holiday weekend in October that she realized the plan was a shambles. Some teachers had refused to participate, turning in blank sheets. Some had filled them out incompletely. Other sheets were missing, making it impossible to compare morning and afternoon attendance.

The next week, Topps conceded defeat and returned to taking attendance only in homeroom. She worried that she was setting a bad example by reversing herself too quickly. "Even the good kids are standing by to see how much you can get away with," she said during an interview later.

As the school year wore on, a pattern emerged. Plans were often announced, only to be withdrawn. New disciplinary rules were put in place and sometimes only loosely enforced. Violating the rules often carried little or no penalty, and the students knew it. "Our kids know from the start that whatever you start, they will wear you out," social studies teacher Leroy A. Swain said after school ended in June. "They have time on their side."

Topps knew that maintaining a sense of discipline was crucial. It defined a school's atmosphere. If a few troublemakers were allowed to break the back of authority, it would send a clear signal to the students at the margin, which was where the battle would be won or lost.

Having started a campaign to improve attendance, Topps was not about to give up. She made clear to the faculty that she wanted them to follow through on the six-page "action plan" that listed 22 "critical tasks" intended to increase the daily attendance rate to 92 percent -- up from 90 percent the previous year. On a typical day, that meant no more than 100 students absent out of the 1,227 listed on McKinley's official rolls when school opened.

In 20 years as a teacher and administrator in the D.C. public schools, Topps, 43, had acquired a reputation for toughness, an image that she likes to project. She rarely smiled, often fixing students with a stony gaze and addressing them as "Angelface" because she has a hard time remembering names. When she felt it necessary, she could be just as tough with parents.

At the first PTA meeting in October, she warned about 100 parents who showed up that she was not going to tolerate tardiness or repeated absences. Standing amid red-and-white Coca-Cola signs, donated by the soft drink company and imprinted with the slogans "Renewing a Legacy" and "Striving for Excellence," she told them: "Expect a telephone call during the day if your child is not coming to school on time, attending class or doing well in class."

To let the students know that she meant business, Topps walked the halls, armed with a walkie-talkie. One day, she confronted two students, a boy and a girl, just outside their lockers on the second floor.

"Why are you in the hall?" Topps demanded.

"We're just getting here. I got up late," said the boy.

Topps looked at them sternly. They waited politely, sensing a lecture coming. Topps said, "You have to learn to be on time. When you go to work and they fire you for coming in at this time of day, you'll say, 'They fired me because I'm black.' " Topps let her words sink in. Then she said, "If I catch you in the hall at this time again, I'm going to give you a little vacation."

One morning in November, however, there were so many students leaning against the light brown lockers in one first-floor hallway that Topps said it reminded her of a convention. When the students saw Topps, some began making their way to class. Others ignored her, continuing their conversations, until Topps prodded them to get moving.

It was clear that her efforts weren't making much of a dent. During the Thanksgiving holiday, she turned the problem over in her mind and decided she needed to do something dramatic, something that would catch everyone's attention.

It was time, she decided, for a "Code Blue." Surviving Code Blue

At 10:05 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 2, the bells rang three times in brief bursts. Teachers shut the doors to their classrooms. Topps' staff, stationed at strategic corridors, fanned out to round up any students in the hallways without a valid pass. Code Blue was under way. By the time the "hall sweep" was over, 50 students had been handed two-day suspensions and sent home.

Code Blue was one of the oldest weapons in Topps' arsenal. She first employed it five years ago, shortly after arriving at McKinley. It immediately became the talk of the school. The following year, upperclassmen warned new students about it. Another year, the senior class raised money by selling buttons that said: "I survived Code Blue."

At 10:57 a.m. the following day, the Code Blue bells went off again. Another 30 students were suspended. Afterward, Assistant Principal Donald Wills toured the first-floor hallways. "It works," he said. "See how clear the halls are now."

By Friday morning of that week, however, the halls were crowded again. At 9:10 a.m, 10 minutes after the start of class, about 30 students milled around a second-floor corridor, just yards from the teachers' lounge. No one moved them along to class.

Topps said she couldn't run a Code Blue every day. "Any time you run something and it starts to be a joke to the children, it's no good," she said. Instead, she announced at the annual Christmas assembly that she, herself, would monitor the front door, which is the only permitted entrance to McKinley. Also, she ordered her attendance counselor, Kimberlyn Dean McKenzie, to compile a list of students with excessive absences, contact their parents and make clear that the school intended to drop them from the rolls if the absences continued. On Jan. 16, McKenzie circulated a tentative "drop list" with 86 names; more were added later. Few were dropped, however. They were "readmitted" after meetings between their parents and school administrators.

Then, on Jan. 28, a fight broke out just inside the gray metal front door. Barbara M. Green, a security aide who monitors the entrance, watched as a crowd began to form, including "outsiders" who did not attend the school. The crowd spilled onto the concrete plaza in front of the building. Uncertain about how to stop the fight, she tried to get the McKinley students to come back inside. At least a dozen ignored her.

The fight moved into the parking lot, ending up on the snow-covered athletic field at Langley Junior High School next door. Before police could break it up, an 11th grader was pistol-whipped and several shots were fired, although no one was struck. Police said later that the fight involved rival drug dealers and stemmed from a dispute over a girl.

The following Monday, Feb. 2, Green got into a shouting match with a senior girl who came to school late and refused to answer Green's questions. They cursed each other and nearly came to blows, Green said later. Green was so upset that she did not go to work the rest of the week. 'An Adult Makes Decisions'

Concerned about these incidents, Topps called an emergency faculty meeting for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. At 8:40, as teachers continued to straggle into Room 130, a 150-seat lecture hall, Topps decided not to wait any longer. "None of you has overlooked the fact that we have had a series of fights in the school over the last few weeks," she said, before asking English teacher William S. Jones to explain Topps' latest disciplinary plan.

From then on, Jones told them, anyone who arrived at school late, anyone caught in the hall without permission, would be required to go to school early for a week of 8 a.m. detention, where they would do extra lessons in math and English.

Anyone caught fighting would get the maximum suspension allowed by the school system: 25 school days.

Some teachers squirmed in the straight-back wooden chairs, offering several reasons why it would be difficult to enforce the new rules. Topps, impatient, cut off the discussion. Finally, math teacher Wellington Wilder spoke up in support of the plan and warned: "It's only going to work if we have 100 percent participation."

The next step was to meet with the students directly. She scheduled a series of meetings in Room 130. Only the 11th grade girls challenged Topps about the wisdom of the detention plan.

"If {we} can't get here by 9, what makes you think we can get here by 8 a.m.?" asked one girl, prompting applause from 100 or so girls in the room.

"We believe you can," Topps said. "And if you can find your way here by 8, you can make it here by 9. We are going to show you that you can."

"When teachers come to school late, do they go home for two days without pay?" another asked, to more applause.

"There are employment regulations for teachers," Topps said. "Employment regulations are not to be discussed with you. I will discuss that matter with the teachers."

Another girl suggested that Topps was mixing her messages. "You stress coming to school . . . {but} if you come to school late and you get suspended, then you're not here in school," the girl said.

"You are right," Topps said, leaning forward at the lectern. "I stress coming to school every day. But for some of us, there seems to be a problem coming to school on time. We have to teach you that you have to get to school on time."

"Some students might stay home when they realize they are going to be late," another said. There were murmurs and hand claps.

Annoyed, Topps stood up to her full 5-foot-6 height and placed her hands on the sides of the lectern. "These are choices you have to make," she said. "Choose the road that leads to the best consequence. You have to learn to make decisions. An adult makes decisions. I want you to go home and talk to your parents about what we have discussed here. And if you and your parents decide that you cannot live by these rules, I will be more than happy to make the proper arrangements for you to find a place where you and your parent can feel comfortable. But if you are here on Monday morning, I expect you to abide by these rules." Serving Time in Room 130

The detention system went into effect Monday, Feb. 9, under Jones' supervision. Throughout the first week, he patrolled the halls and Green sat at the main entrance with a yellow legal pad, recording the names of late arrivals. By Friday at 8 a.m., 25 students sat in Room 130, doing extra work under Jones' watchful eye.

The following Monday was a holiday and school was closed. On Tuesday, detention ended 30 minutes early so that the faculty could have its weekly meeting. At the meeting, Topps called the program "a success." The next day, a handwritten note appeared on the door of Room 130, saying without elaboration that detention had been canceled until Monday, Feb. 23.

On Monday, Feb. 23, school was closed because of snow.

As the weeks went by, fewer and fewer students showed up for detention. Enforcement became looser. Some students signed Green's tardy list when they came in late, some put down fictitious names, others refused to sign. Some teachers conscientiously passed along the names of students who arrived late to class, but others did not. At one point Jones said, "We're only catching the good kids. For some reason, the teachers aren't sending the names of the other kids."

On Friday morning, March 20, I sat at the front desk to count how many students arrived late. No one was supervising the desk.

Between 9 and 9:45, while first-period classes were in session, 161 students went in. The breakdown went this way: Between 9 and 9:05, there were 74. Between 9:05 and 9:20, another 61. Between 9:20 and 9:40, nine more. After 9:40, another 17.

At 9:25, security aide Calvin Hamilton appeared after tending to several illegally parked cars on the school's lot. At 9:45, he had 20 students on the tardy list. Only seven of the 20, however, went to 8 a.m. detention the following Tuesday.

Two months after it had started, 8 a.m. detention ended. There was no formal announcement. Just before Easter vacation in mid-April, Jones told the few students still in detention that they did not need to come the rest of that week.

On the first morning after Easter break, only one 11th grade girl showed up, but Room 130 was empty. When she saw Jones later, he told the girl that she didn't need to come any more.

Topps said the detention plan just "petered out . . . . It started out with a bang, {but} as the year got closer to the end, we began to get consumed with seniors and graduation."

But some students said the program was undermined because the faculty played favorites, penalizing some violators while letting others go. "Some of the administrators were too lenient," said senior Hubert W. Steptoe III after graduation in June. "They need to start enforcing it {fairly}. I can say that now that I'm not there."

Jones said the program ended because "it had become futile." Teachers weren't handing in names of students who arrived at class late, and some students weren't showing up for the detention anyway.

"In general, there was very little cooperation from the teachers," he said. "No follow-through." Record-Keeping Problems

When three school officials from "central" -- school system headquarters -- came for an annual review in April, Topps confessed that she was worried. Attendance in recent months had been good, averaging 90, 91 and 92 percent, according to the official attendance reports. But, she told them, "In the last two weeks, I have become very concerned about attendance. I was disappointed in the number of students at the school last Friday for an assembly. I don't know what's happening. {But} on the whole, we're not doing bad."

How well they were doing depended on which records they used. Official reports filed with the regional office showed better attendance than the daily absentee lists compiled and distributed by McKenzie's office. It is difficult to determine which records are accurate.

On Feb. 13, for example, there were 208 names on the daily absence sheet, but the report to the region listed only 109 as absent that day. Shown the Feb. 13 list, McKenzie took a pencil and drew lines through 64 names. "These were transfers and drops," she said.

Some of the others, she said, had come to see her after homeroom period that day to say that they were late, not absent, so she had marked them as tardy. She could not explain the rest.

A closer examination of the 208 names does not clear up the confusion. Fewer than 20 of the 64 names appear on any of the official lists of drops and transfers that McKenzie sent around to teachers before Feb. 13. And in crossing names off the Feb. 13 list, she had deleted several students who I saw attend school through the end of the year.

In all this confusion, perhaps it is easy to understand how Hubert Steptoe got a perfect attendance award when his homeroom teacher's records showed him with eight absences.

McKenzie said the awards were based on nominations from homeroom teachers. But Antonin Svehla, Hubert's homeroom teacher, said he had not sent Hubert's name to McKenzie.

The culprit was Hubert. He said he saw a "perfect attendance" list one day in a class- room and added his name. He figured that someone would check the records and discover his prank.

He was surprised when his name was among the 43 called at an April 29 award assembly in the gym. His reward was a six-pack of Coke.

Later that day, a second assembly was held to hear speeches by student government candidates. Students had been told that attendance was mandatory. Teachers were expected to escort their classes to the gym.

Fewer than 250 students went. Unwilling to believe such a low turnout, Topps systematically asked first-floor, second-floor and third-floor teachers to raise their hands.

"I don't know what the problem is," she said. "Either we aren't all here or something terrible, a plague, has hit this school." 'We Had Goals'

On Wednesday morning, June 17, the teachers gathered in Room 130 for the last faculty meeting of the year. The room was hot -- there was no air conditioning or even a fan -- and the teachers waited uncomfortably for the disappointing news that they knew Topps was about to deliver. The test scores for the ninth and 11th graders were back, and the rumor was that they weren't good.

At the lectern, Topps looked grim, standing in front of the "Renewing a Legacy" sign.

"What did I say about having goals?" she asked.

"We must have them," someone whispered loudly.

"What's worse than not meeting your goals?" she asked.

"Not having any," another teacher said.

"We had goals," she said. "We did not meet them."

Topps felt their goals had been modest, a true reflection of what the students could achieve.

For the ninth graders, the goal was grade level, which is considered to be 9.8 because the test is given in the eighth month of the school year. For the 11th graders, the goal was 11.0.

As she wrote the scores on a portable chalkboard, the ninth-grade teachers winced: Reading, 8.9. Language Skills, 9.0. Math, 9.1. Reference Skills, 10.0. Science, 8.5. Social Studies, 9.4.

The 11th-grade scores were worse: Reading, 9.5. Language Skills, 10.1. Math, 9.6. Reference Skills, 10.1. Science, 8.9. Social Studies, 11.0.

Not only did the scores fall short of the goal, but also they were slightly lower than the previous year.

Other schools throughout the District experienced the same pattern, which school officials said was the result of using a newer and slightly tougher version of the test.

But the McKinley faculty was still unhappy. French teacher Vernon Williams asked Topps, "How much do you feel attendance had to do with the test scores?"

"My feeling is that one cannot achieve if one isn't here," Topps said.

"Unfortunately, the responsibility of getting a child to school is not in the home anymore. That responsibility now lies with the principal."

She paused, then continued. "What is going on in this building should be so stimulating that the children will want to leap forward and come to school. We have to get some challenging programs for our children."

She urged them to think about the problem over the summer, to come up with ways to improve their teaching and get more kids interested in school.

"Have I beat you to death on this?" she asked.

"Yes," a few said.

She smiled and said: "I'm going to beat you again in August. Beat you again in September. Beat you again in December . . . . "

NEXT: Pressures on a star athlete

ABOUT THE SERIES

Washington Post reporter Athelia Knight spent nearly all of the 1986-87 school year on assignment at McKinley High School, where school officials allowed her to sit in on classes, attend faculty meetings and interview students and teachers about the problems confronting today's urban high school. McKinley was selected because it is an average D.C. high school, as measured by its scores on standardized tests and by the percentage of its graduates who go on to college. McKINLEY NOTEBOOK

Jan. 5, 1987

It was Monday morning, the first day after the winter break, and Principal Bettye Topps was catching up on some work when Cynthia Moten appeared at the door, unannounced and unhappy.

Moten, who had her two teen-aged sons with her, wanted Topps' help. Her son, Everet, an 11th grader at McKinley, was skipping classes regularly. She was tired of arguing with him about it and didn't know what else to do. He was almost 18 and she had four other children to care for; she didn't have time to go to school to check on him.

And to make matters worse, her other teen-aged son, a ninth grader at the adjacent Langley Junior High School, was picking up Everet's habits. If he passed, he would be at McKinley in the fall. She pleaded with Topps to do something, anything, to get Everet to stop skipping school.

Topps looked up at Everet, who was leaning against her book case. "What grade are you in?" she asked.

"Eleventh," he said.

"You're above the compulsory school age," she said. "If you don't start going to classes, I'm going to have to drop you from our rolls. We're trying to obtain 92 percent attendance, and you're bringing it down."

There wasn't much Topps felt she could do. She couldn't make Everet go to class. She could only warn him of the penalties.

For the remainder of the year, Everet frequently went to the school but rarely went to class. He hung out in the halls or outside on the plaza. Whenever his English teacher, Kevin Strachan, saw him on the school grounds, he asked him why he wasn't attending his class. Everet would promise to go the next day, but he rarely did. At the end of the year, he was told he had to repeat the class because he had not done the course work.