Northern: Better than it was, but is that good enough? School: An embattled principal numbers in her flock children who wander the halls to avoid class and serious students who devour advanced courses.

June 14, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Shortly after the fourth teen-ager from Northern High was slain this year, Principal Alice Morgan-Brown took to the school's closed-circuit television to play counselor.

She thought her words and image might inspire calm among the school's shaken students. Maybe a little hope, too.

Brown told her students about morals and choices. She appealed to them to use their belief in a higher power -- God, Allah or whomever they worshiped -- to help them make good decisions and see them through the bad ones.

She talked to them about strength in the face of adversity.

She told them about conscience.

When Brown's visage disappeared from the screen in Linda Marion's homeroom, a young man sitting in back stood and approached his teacher.

With three words, he captured the challenge facing everyone who works to make Northern a better place.

"What's a conscience?" he asked.

Brown was rattled, if not surprised. "I don't think that tells you about all of our children," she said when she heard about the student's question. "But it does give you an idea of how deep some of the things we're dealing with are."

Coping. Look past the steady stream of headlines and controversy that flowed from Northern this school year, and that's what you'll find in the school's cavernous corridors.

You won't discover students tearing the place apart while teachers and administrators cower -- though that was the inevitable assumption after Brown suspended two-thirds of her students last fall and booted 50 more for good in January.

Instead, what you find is a school in which everyone is grappling with a tapestry of issues that are more complex, and subtle.

Everyone is just trying to get by.

Students etch gravestones into desktops and fill notebook pages with names of fallen friends -- all to deal with the deaths that surround their lives.

Teachers plug away, arriving as early as 6: 30 each morning, while as many as half of their students never show for classes and others seem to sleepwalk through them.

And sadly -- shockingly, perhaps -- some of the teen-agers at Northern must confront weighty adult issues without even a child's idea of what a conscience is.

Hidden gems

Look in the right places, and you'll also find hidden gems at Northern.

Honor students peer through microscopes at DNA strands in the bio-technology lab and toil over advanced math in the distance-learning lab.

Top-notch career and college prep programs attract children from all over the city. The school's sports teams have been revitalized, and its renowned gospel choir booms with angelic voices.

But even the school's best students must adapt to survive. They dodge the rowdy cafeteria and walk through the halls in groups to avoid trouble. Some have burly friends or relatives meet them at school to escort them home each day.

They cope, too -- even if it's coping to thrive.

The question for Brown, the school's often-criticized leader, may be whether coping is good enough for one of the city's largest high schools.

Would Northern be a better place, a more productive school for its 1,800 students, under different leadership?

"I'd be silly to sit here and say there isn't somebody, somewhere, who could do this job better than I can," Brown says.

"But that's not my decision to make. I'm not the one who has to answer that question."

The school system may soon answer it for her. About 15 principals are likely to be removed this year for poor performance, and many believe Brown's name is on the list.

She is not sitting around, though, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"I can't control what happens to me," she says. "I can just keep doing what I think needs to be done in this school.

"We've come a long way, actually, but people just don't know it."

Changes made

If Brown had her way, people would know two things about her school: what it was like when she got there three years ago, and what changes she has made since then.

They wouldn't ignore the challenges she still faces. But they'd understand -- and respect -- the way she chooses to deal with them.

As she walks the halls of her school, a walkie-talkie in hand and a stern look on her face, the 31-year educator must make on-the-spot decisions that reflect her complicated role.

In the hallways, she finds one of her greatest challenges: students who don't go to class. Brown spends hours each day with her cadre of black-shirted security guards "sweeping" the building's perimeter and its corridors, rounding up students. At times, the hallways seem more crowded with students than the classrooms.

Brown knows the constant hall activity is the first, surest sign of a school out of control. And she knows her school must look a mess to visitors.

But Brown also believes there is important context behind the appearances that can't be ignored.

"Are there students in the hallways? Absolutely, there are," Brown admits. "But are there as many as there were when I got here, and are they doing the same things? Absolutely not."

Dealing with issues

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