A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 3: The Principal : A Visionary Tests a Skeptical World

Times Staff Writer

The woman at the center of the storm is Beryl Ward, a 50-year-old career educator with hair dyed the color of wine, who answers her office phone "yo" and named her cat Chaka because, like the infamous tagger, "he marked everything" when she brought him home.

She and Chaka live in a bungalow in a marginal Reseda neighborhood where friends drop her off with excuses not to get out of the car. She also owns a house in New Mexico, which is her escape from the problems of Los Angeles and her job.

Ward, a fair-skinned woman with a knowing smile, bought the place before the pay cut, which slashed into her $65,000 salary, forcing her to remove her acrylic nails, eliminate trips to the mall and cut her housekeeper back to twice a month. Now she is thinking of renting out the New Mexico house.

Her child-first philosophy appears to have arisen partly from her own experience growing up, when kids were expected to be seen and not heard. Born in Lincoln, Neb., she moved frequently as her father worked his way up the corporate ladder with the Singer sewing machine company.

It made her angry the way kids were treated in an adult world, the way adults were served ahead of her in stores, even if she was there first.

She seems to remember every teacher who hurt her. There was the teacher who led the class singing "Roll Out the Barrel," mocking the pronunciation of her name.

She was miserable in physical education class and especially hated the forced runs. Then when she was 17, she won a national essay contest, and the PE teacher, the one who had made her run when she hated to run, offered congratulations. "When my picture was on the front page of the paper the woman put her arm around me. She said, 'Beryl, I'm so proud of you.' I wanted to punch her lights out."

Ward's winning essay was entitled "What's Right About American Youth."

She wanted to be a writer and was talented enough that, when her teacher at Amarillo Junior College got a promotion to a college in Ohio as poetry chair, he wanted Ward to enroll there.

But the family didn't have enough money to send her away, so she ended up at Texas Western University and wound up going into teaching.

"I did not want to teach," she said. "But when I started, I loved it."

Her concern for the disadvantaged student developed out of her longtime assignment as principal at Earhart High School, a continuation school in North Hollywood, where she saw thousands of students that she felt the educational system had failed.

She blamed a system too focused on standards and test scores to care how many students were discarded and allowed to drop out of school. She decided the answer was to keep kids in school by making school a place kids want to be.

That's why the "smile gauge" and attendance figures are more important to her than test scores.

It was Ward's decision to name the continuation school after Amelia Earhart. "I was determined we were going to name it for a woman, a feminist Republican," said Ward.

Despite the fact that she is herself a Republican, her attitudes are wrapped in the reliable cloth coat of old-fashioned social liberalism. Her work, she says, is a form of "Earth rent, paying back your space on the planet."

She has the commitment to an ideal of the visionary, or the revolutionary, who sees people in theoretical terms. Teachers union representative Frank Randa said that, in all her decisions, Ward has a picture in her mind of a poor struggling child trying to do her best in school, only to be defeated by some mean teacher demanding that she do more and more work.

"I never met a kid who chose to be a failure, who chose to be a loser," Ward said.

She suffers palpably when people fail to measure up to her ideals. When she saw a visitor talking to students, Ward figured that she might be able to gather intelligence about how her efforts to make school more enjoyable were being received. What did they say about school? she asked.

"It sucks," she was told. She looked like she had been hit, her eyes widening. The visitor added hastily that it's part of being a kid to say school sucks, it doesn't mean anything. But she seemed to take it as a repudiation of her.

She can still quote verbatim a note from a long-ago student whose failure haunts her. "You're the best teacher I ever had, even though I didn't learn," the girl wrote. "I thought, 'She's not the failure, I am,' " Ward said.

Ward's arrival in 1990 ushered in an era of change and confrontation at Northridge Middle School. The first two years had been tough enough, as she tried to persuade teachers used to doing things the old way to learn how to teach differently and to be more concerned with making kids feel good about coming to school than meeting some sky-high standard of excellence. But this year, the pay cut and the threat of a strike had made everything that much more difficult.

The year began on a sour note when a number of teachers boycotted the annual start-of-the-year barbecue. They hadn't told her until the last minute that they wouldn't be there, leaving Ward and a few others to face 800 parents and students.

Then she found herself battling the most negative teachers--the "ain't it awfuls," she called them--over all kinds of minor things. It made her angry, especially when she knew that outsiders loved to hammer away at the shortcomings of public education.

It got to the point that even her friends joked about her problems. Some of the administrators were sharing childhood hopes and dreams over lunch one day when Derek Horowitz, the dean of students, piped up, "I wanted to be the most hated principal in the Valley, but that's already taken."

Despite the struggles with teachers, Ward was an active and effective emissary for her school. She had an ability to talk people into doing things for "the kids," skillfully cultivating ties with the business community.

Ward's philosophy about grades--"I don't think grades given in middle school have a lot to do with whether someone goes to Harvard"--developed into a major campus issue after she confronted UTLA representative Randa one winter morning in her office. She and Randa respected each other, which made things easier. She thought he was a nice guy, and he admired her strength and ability to get things done.

"We have some real disparity," Ward told Randa. "Some teachers give 5% Ds and Fs, and others are giving 50%. We feel we need to talk individually to those giving more than 25%."

The percentage breakdown was 6% Ds and Fs in music, up to 35% in social studies. The school's best test scores were in social studies, yet that was where the worst grades were being given out.

The social studies teachers said this proved that their high standards motivated kids to learn, but Ward wasn't buying it. She doesn't think people learn from failure. Ward said she didn't want to see more than 5% to 15% Ds and Fs.

"If they won't change anything else, at least change the way of assessing them," she said bitterly. "At least they won't be killing them."

This statement would reverberate throughout Northridge Middle School for months and eventually turn into the Great Grade Debate.

Teachers believed Ward was telling them to ignore whether students were learning anything and just give higher grades so that she could prove her school reforms were working.

Ward insisted that all she was doing was telling the teachers to look at whether the difficult material was appropriate for today's kids, by which she meant the mostly minority student body.

One approach that Ward used to encourage the slowpokes to adopt more of the reforms was Classrooms in Action. It was a program requiring teachers to observe instructors applying the new teaching methods emphasizing team teaching and cooperative learning, in which students worked more in groups than in isolation, as in the past. The new methods also put more stock in understanding concepts than learning an array of facts.

Randa, on behalf of one complainant, wanted to know "the legality of saying we have to do it." Some of the old-timers rankled at being told to observe their colleagues, as if they were first-year teachers who didn't know their way to the restroom.

Ward's answer was typically blunt. "I am the principal."

"Can I miss work when I'm asked to do double the work" for less pay? Randa asked.

"Refer to No. 1," said Ward. "I am still the principal. The purpose is to have people observe colleagues doing exemplary things."

Randa didn't identify the complainant, but Ward's irritation seemed to suggest that it was likely that she believed it was Ronn Yablun, the math teacher whose questions and criticisms of her dominated UTLA meetings.

Ward and Yablun made no secret of their dislike for one another. It was Yablun who set the tone for Ward's dealings with the teachers after the first faculty meeting she chaired upon her arrival at Northridge. When the meeting ran five minutes late, he filed a complaint against her, Randa said.

According to Randa, Ward reacted by becoming a formalist, memo-in-the-mailbox, by-the-book principal, which ended up driving more people into Yablun's camp.

Sometimes he pettiness and hostility got to the principal. "I'm taking all the potshots," she said wearily one day.

Beryl Ward's bible is a 1987 report by the California State Department of Education called "Caught in the Middle: Educational Reform for Young Adolescents in California Public Schools." Produced by a task force appointed by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, the report suggested restructuring the traditional junior high--regarded by educators as the stepchild of American education, with its difficult clientele of not-quite-children, not-quite-adults--into a more nurturing place.

Instead of sending students through their school day with different teachers and different classmates each period, teachers and students would be teamed up to build in a sense of family and connectedness.

There would be an emphasis on group learning. At Northridge, students were regularly placed in small groups, called pods, to work on projects together. "Caught in the Middle" also emphasized interdisciplinary teaching in which lessons taught in math would be coordinated with social studies and English. At Northridge, for instance, students creating their own civilization learned math by measuring and designing the houses, and they learned social studies by choosing the climates and living conditions in their civilizations.

A new, non-academic class called Advisory was to be created, giving teachers and students a place to discuss life and moral matters in a non-threatening way. Then there would be special interest classes, which they called PAC, for Preferred Activity Class, at Northridge.

One of the biggest changes would be converting grade 7-9 junior high schools into 6-8 middle schools, making them less like mini-high schools.

The final recommendation of the 142-page report was to designate 100 "state-of-the-art middle schools" to serve as a catalyst for the reform of all California's middle grade schools. Northridge was chosen to be one of 10 state-of-the-art schools in Los Angeles.

Ward came to Northridge just as the reforms were being implemented. Northridge had been a 6-8 school since the mid-'80s, but in other ways it had held to the traditional junior high schedule and approach to learning. Since the increased emphasis under "Caught in the Middle" on social development and cooperation meshed so well with her own ideas, Ward saw no reason to phase the reforms in gradually as other schools were doing. The school jumped into the program with both feet in the fall of 1990, revamping the curriculum, changing the schedules and bringing in all the other new programs at once. About 85 minutes a week were cut out of the school day.

The change was wrenching for some of the teachers, who complained and dragged their feet. But Ward held firm to her course, and told those who didn't want to go along with the new philosophy that the transfer slips were on the front counter. Three teachers took the hint and left.

Now, according to John Liechty, head of the district's middle schools unit, Northridge is in the vanguard of the whole reform movement.

"Northridge Middle School I use as a model," said Liechty.

Liechty said he could not prove that the reforms that Northridge was implementing would be successful. "What I get all the time is 'show me how it works,' " he said. "I don't have a study. I wish I could tell you the CTBS (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills) and CAP scores were going up dramatically. They're not yet. I wish I could also tell you we're making inroads in improving GPA."

Ward was already at work there, though teachers would question whether the "success" in improving grades meant anything.

Of the principal, he said, "she was brought in because of her background. She's not the traditionalist. She's willing to take on the faculty and labor organizations and willing to get the hell kicked out" of her.

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