In the final weeks before the publication of this series, several people who are knowledgeable about McKinley -- its principal, a former PTA president, a member of its alumni association and the superintendent of D.C. schools -- were interviewed about the information to be included in these articles and what, if any, changes they would implement. Several experts who have studied urban high schools also were interviewed.Bettye W. Topps, principal

Several times during the school year, Topps spoke out at school assemblies and faculty meetings about her concerns -- honor roll students who did not want to come forward to accept their award because they were "embarrassed," students who came to school late and unprepared, the difficulty of motivating and stimulating today's "television-oriented" students.

On the last Sunday in August, sitting in the living room of her Northwest Washington home for the last of several dozen conversations we had during the course of the school year, she said she was "frustrated, angry and mad" by the end of the school year. McKinley "is not anywhere near where I would like it to be," she said. "There has not been enough follow-through. I haven't gotten the results. It's not because I haven't tried."

In her 20 years as a teacher and administrator in the D.C. school system, including five as McKinley's principal, Topps said she has seen a variety of approaches to solving the problems inherent at an urban school -- many of which are the result of social and economic conditions that the schools cannot control.

Today's high schools, she said, are feeling the effects of some of the educational methods that were in favor 10 years ago. "We fail to remember that in the '60s and '70s, there were all of these experimental things about education -- letting children choose, letting kids work at their own pace, open education, open classrooms. Now that the kids have formed this {blase} attitude, we can't understand why . . . . We can't blame the kids."

Teachers, she said, have to decide every year how to handle students who are not ready for high school courses. She gave an example: An algebra student cannot do long division, a necessary skill to start algebra. His teacher works with him, and by the end of the year, he has mastered it -- but he still can't do algebra. What grade should he get? she asked.

"If you say he got a D because he was only at the long division level, the parent complains that you were supposed to teach him algebra and not long division. The teacher knows if she had taught him algebra, he would have failed," she said.

Teachers who want to fail students don't get enough support from parents or the school system, she said. "We have gone through a period where if a child doesn't succeed, it's the teacher's fault. Pretty soon, you get teachers who bend over backward to give a kid a D. The child may not have to do much for that D. Over the years, he does less and less and still gets that D."

These issues rarely get discussed at educational conferences, she said. At the same time, she said, she was worried that publicizing some of these problems would hurt the school. "If you keep destroying the institution that is doing the training -- you've already said the home isn't doing it, now the school isn't doing it -- the kid comes to me and says, 'Why should I listen to you?' "

She said that McKinley has a number of "exceptional" students. The others, she said, want to learn and will "rise to the occasion" with the help of school officials and teachers.

"Right now, we're trying to force learning on kids," she said. "Until the child becomes an active participant, they aren't going to reach their fullest potential. To be excellent, an individual has to go the extra mile . . . . It has to be something that {the individual} wants to do." Betty Thomas, 1986-87 PTA president

As the mother of a 10th grader at McKinley, Betty Thomas said she knows about the peer pressure. "It's not popular now to be bright," she said during an interview Sept. 3. "I don't know why."

To overcome such attitudes, teachers and parents must forge a "stronger bond" than now exists, she said. Last year's PTA meetings drew fewer than 100 parents. Thomas said her recruitment efforts failed to increase the organization's membership. "I don't believe there is a lack of interest," she said. "I get the same response from parents: 'I'm working two jobs.' Or, 'I'm working a split shift.' It's never, 'I'm not interested.' "

She believes that Topps is a "good administrator" and that McKinley's good teachers are the school's most important asset. "We don't show enough appreciation to our teachers," she said. "It seems like it's a thankless job . . . . Now that you mention it, I'm sitting here thinking how often have I sent a teacher a note to say 'thank you' or 'You are doing a good job.' " Margo Johnson Kelly, Alumni Association

A 1961 McKinley graduate, Margo Kelly is a busy woman -- she is the mother of three teen-aged boys, all in school in Montgomery County where they live. She is also a computer specialist for the General Accounting Office, an independent real estate broker, a part owner of a travel agency and an active member of McKinley's Alumni Association, founded in 1982.

She remembers her high school days as less complicated and more sheltered. "Adult problems didn't reach us, adult problems of joblessness, pregnancy . . . improper diet, not enough food, not the proper clothes . . . . Children in 1987 are striving to feel comfortable in the world that surrounds them, a confusing world. Often, the requirments for their learning surpasses their abilities or the time that the family has" to work with them, she said.

Since 1985, she has been trying to start a "mentoring" program, in which McKinley alumni from varied careers would volunteer to take from one to 10 students under their wing, and meet with them at least once a month. After getting support from the alumni assocation members, Kelly made a formal proposal to Topps in October. No follow-up meetings were held, however, so Kelly now hopes to get the program going this year. Floretta D. McKenzie, D.C. school superintendent

Where others see the students' nonchalant attitude toward learning as a true indication of their lack of interest, Floretta D. McKenzie said it's a "cavalier facade {that} masks feelings of hopelessness."

What should be done? She, too, favors a mentoring program, putting students in close contact with successful role models. "I think {the} alumni can do a wonderful job at that," she said.

McKenzie, who recently announced that she planned to leave the superintendent post after six years to head her own consulting firm, said McKinley has an opportunity to lick some of its problems because Topps "is a good person, and she is smart. She has tried . . . to get students to be responsible for their behavior."

Asked about the school's failure, at times, to follow through, she said: "You never completely have the answer." Turning the question around, she emphasized the school's achievements -- the students who are doing well and exhibiting leadership despite "negative peer pressure."

She concluded, "I'm one of the few paid optimists in the city. You've got to believe. You've got to. If you give up, the consequences are much too great." Several experts who have studied urban schools

None of the experts was surprised by the the information outlined in the series. They see it as a common problem that could be found in almost any urban high school -- not a McKinley problem or a D.C. problem. Recognizing the universality of the problem, they said, is critical to coming up with solutions.

Many students at urban schools come from neighborhoods in which they have seen, or perhaps experienced, the effect of unemployment, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancy and crime. These urban students see fewer examples of people who have done well in high school and gone on to successful careers.

"The middle-income kids have much better evidence that a high school degree has high economical consequences," said Michelle Fine, a University of Pennsylvania professor who spent the 1984-85 school year at a New York City high school, where she studied dropout rates.

Dr. James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist at Yale University who wrote a book based on a long-term study of New Haven, Conn., public schools, said high school students are the most difficult to reach and that it is critical to establish a sense of discipline in the early grades.

"In elementary school, they pretty much do what you say," Comer said. "In high school, they are pulling away. The fact you want them to bring in their books has to be internalized . . . . It has to be their goal."

Henry M. Levin, professor of education and economics at Stanford University, agreed. "We should be putting much more emphasis on elementary schools than secondary schools," he said. "That's where the learning, motivation and excitement about school takes place. We have to deliver the kids into secondary schools as good people, people who can learn."