When the students of McKinley High School gather for a special assembly today, the school cheerleaders will burst into a new chant: "Rah, rah, academic excellence."

That is the first of many steps that Principal Bettye W. Topps says she must take to restore school spirit in the aftermath of The Washington Post's series based on a reporter's year at the Northeast Washington public school.

Yesterday, Topps organized a news conference at which students, parents, administrators and school board member Bettie Benjamin (Ward 5) criticized the series for what they called its "negative" slant.

"The series is malicious and cruel," Topps said. "We've tried for years to nurture and care for hundreds of little egos, for children who are constantly being told that the only reason they go to public school is that their parents can't afford anything else. Now we have to start over and build them back up to be proud again."

The Post series, which concludes today, has been the hot topic on McKinley's sprawling campus. Students discussed it in English and social studies class Monday. Parents devoted part of last night's Parent Teacher Student Association meeting to it.

"We do not take lightly nor will we tolerate any gestures by media to undermine our efforts to train our children," said Miller Newman, president of the 1,200-student school's PTA.

Some parents, however, said the series will help McKinley. "It's going to stimulate a lot of concern and galvanize people to get involved with improving the school," said Rodney Lynch, father of a 10th grader.

The first part of the series, which centered on peer pressure against academic achievement, was widely seen as an attack on the school's brightest students.

Reporter Athelia Knight "interviewed me several times, so I know she knows there are students who are proud to be intelligent," said Nichole Tobias, a 10th grader. "Now people come over and say, 'You go to McKinley; is all this true?' It hurts."

Steven Luxenberg, deputy editor of The Post's special projects staff, said the newspaper had always planned today's story on some of McKinley's best teachers and students.

Other students had broader criticisms. "An outsider can't come in here and tell us about our school after one year when we've been here for four years," said senior Theresa Small. "And she didn't talk about any positives."

Jerome Best, a senior, said the series should have emphasized advanced courses and programs such as junior ROTC. "When I started here in 10th grade, I was on honor roll, and then peer pressure got to me, too," Best said. "I used to hang around with the little bad boys, and they would tease me for getting all As." Best said ROTC helped him get back on track.

Luxenberg said the newspaper devoted an unusual amount of time to reporting at McKinley "to delve deeply into the problems facing urban schools." He said the issue of mediocre students pressuring good students was a frequent topic of discussion by the principal, teachers and students. In the series, The Post noted that it selected McKinley, at Second and T streets NE, because its test scores and number of graduates are average for District high schools.

School board member Benjamin said the series showed "how our community is viewed by modern image-makers {who} forget the hard and arduous road we have followed just to be able to sit in the classroom."

Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie will not comment on the series, her spokeswoman Janis Cromer said. "She would say only that the issues spotlighted were not particular to D.C. schools."

Topps, who said she had to persuade students not to march on The Post, is bitter. She had hoped that the articles would list some of McKinley's academic achievements. Now, she said, she regrets having cooperated with the reporter.

"I thought that since we are a public institution and the public has a right to know, we would welcome her," the principal said. "I regret it thoroughly, and I shall never do it again, and I hope none of my colleagues will."