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Belmont High Comes Back : Four Years Ago, Trash Littered the Hallways, Teacher Morale Was Low and Students Went to Class Only When They Wanted To. How an Inner-City, Multi-Ethnic School Was Turned Around.

September 28, 1986|ELAINE WOO | Elaine Woo is a Times education writer.

I t was 6:45 on a cold January morn ing at Belmont High School, on the fringe of downtown Los An geles. Principal John Howard, ar riving at his customary time, was struck by a sight that infuriated him: graffiti, 10 feet high and 20 feet wide, on an outside wall of the school.

After having spent more than a year hammering away at Belmont's most visible problems--pervasive graffiti, garbage in the hallways and students who roamed the campus instead of going to class--Howard had thought he had things pretty well nailed down. The school was starting to shape up. But now, one of the neighborhood gangs had scrawled its signature over the front of his school. He was damned if he was going to let them get away with it.

As soon as the tardy bell rang, Howard got on the PA system to address Belmont's students.

"I'm sure all of us here have noticed there was some defacing of the wall," the principal said gravely. "I am not going to put up with this kind of psychotic behavior. It shows a negative attitude.

"There is a certain group that did this. I will give you 10 minutes to come down here and take that crap off my walls. If you don't, harsher measures will follow."

Recalling the incident, which took place two years ago, Howard says he had no idea what those "harsher measures" might be. But he was confident that his ploy--he called it "the old fake-out game"--would work.

Minutes after his announcement, six "volunteers" walked into his office. Howard handed them paint and paint rollers.

When they finished, Howard went back on the loudspeakers: "I want to thank the members of the group who came down and undid the defacing of the wall. Ladies and gentlemen, we now have our civilization back."

In some classrooms, students burst into applause.

"Everybody was surprised. We

couldn't believe those people had turned themselves in," one student recalls. But Howard was not surprised. "People do what you expect of them," he says. "It is the law of expectancy--and it works."

Not long ago, no one expect ed much of Belmont.

"The place smelled like a urinal," says a teacher who has taught at the school since the late 1970s. "You couldn't have the classroom door open because we had roving bands of cholos going up and down here."

Graffiti and trash were everywhere. Teacher morale was low. Many instructors found that they spent little time actually teaching because they were "chasing kids down the hall or were disrupted by tardies," says a veteran of Belmont's inglorious past.

Today, however, Belmont is a different place.

Although from the outside it still looks forbidding, isolated from Beverly Boulevard by chain-link fencing and a massive cement wall, its corridors are freshly painted, brightened here and there by murals. Students hustle to class on time. And many teachers keep classroom doors open, no longer disturbed by outside distractions.

Graffiti, although commonplace in the surrounding community, have disappeared from the campus. Misplaced trash is hard to find, even though Belmont is overcrowded and used year-round.

Now, Belmont is considered "the paradigm of what an urban school with difficult problems should be," says Associate Supt. Paul M. Possemato.

Some district officials say it is the best-managed of the Los Angeles Unified School District's 49 high schools. That would be no mean feat for the staff of any school, but at Belmont the accomplishment is amazing. Belmont has 4,300 students, more than any high school in the state. Most of them are low-income and new to the country. They represent 52 countries and speak 34 languages, including Spanish, Cantonese, Khmer, Tagalog, Korean, Laotian and Mandarin. Seventy-six percent of the students are Latino; 20% are Asian. English is a second language to about 60% of the students.

There is a reason why this inner-city school works when so many do not. The reason, according to students, teachers and administrators at Belmont, is John Howard, a 20-year veteran of Los Angeles schools who became principal at Belmont four years ago. "Howard," says a teacher who has taught at Belmont through several administrations, "has gotten things done."

Numerous educational studies have pointed out how important a principal is in making--or breaking--a school. According to the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals, the nation's largest organization of school administrators, the exceptional principal can set the tone for a school and make it a place where students want to learn and where teachers want to go the extra mile to help them. Conversely, the weak or inept principal can make life miserable for everyone.

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