NEW YORK — The textbook budget is only $25 per student. In some classrooms, students can barely hear, what with carpenters' power saws whining in the halls.
Then there's the science teacher assigned by the Board of Education. A disaster. He has survived in the system because other principals chose to pass their problem along rather than endure an exhausting dismissal process.
Small problems, perhaps, as things go in New York public schools. ("School Opens With a Murder" was the Newsday headline the day after summer vacation ended.) But Lottie Taylor isn't one to settle for less bad. She's on the phone, as she often is, wheeling and dealing like a general manager in the National Basketball Assn.
Maybe she can find a graduate student to "assist" the disappointing teacher. She raises money herself for just such emergencies, so she can avoid delays and red tape. It's not strictly by the book. But her students can't wait while the bureaucrats play games.
"You do what you have to do to get the material across to your kids," she says.
Taylor is principal of the A. Phillip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem. Randolph, hailed by former Education Secretary William Bennett and the subject of a TV documentary, is an inner-city school that works.
Randolph is a minority school. Three-quarters of the students are black, the other quarter Latino. Families of almost half the students receive public assistance. Yet more than 95% of Randolph graduates go to four-year colleges, many to the very finest. The dropout rate is less than 2%.
While concerned parents and a bright student body certainly help, Taylor is by all accounts the guiding force. "She makes you believe anything is possible for these kids," says Martha Harvey, president of the school's Parents Assn.
Yet Taylor's plaudits have not spared her the daily harassments and absurdities of New York's public school bureaucracy. Her story shows that to make an urban school work, it's not enough to fight television and crack. One has to fight the system as well.
"It can wear you down," Taylor says. "Yet I can't let that be an excuse to not educate the students the best that I can.
"If they want to fire me--no sweat," she says. "I will go out into the community and work with the parents."
The first thing a visitor notices at Randolph is the order. The school occupies an old (1924) stone building on the fringe of City College next to the drug warren of St. Nicholas Park. Originally, Randolph was to be a model school, run jointly by the school system and the college. But 10 years of planning and union pressures diluted the idea.
The previous principal, a white male, fell victim to bitter racial politics. By the time Taylor arrived, "things were just falling apart," recalls Margaret Ketly, a guidance counselor at the school.
Today, the wood is polished and the lockers work. Major renovation work is in progress. Visitors are greeted politely by a uniformed guard in a starched white shirt. Classes are purposeful and planned to the last detail.
Students waiting to speak with a visiting reporter (who arrives, sheepishly, 15 minutes late) are put to work stuffing envelopes. "There is something to do every minute," Taylor says.
But this is not the macho order of principal Joe Clark of Newark, N.J., with his trademark bullhorn. Taylor shows that mothering qualities are no less important.
To be sure, she is a "a tough, good lady," as one admirer put it. Taylor walks the halls between classes, admonishing young men who tower over her to remove their baseball hats and show some respect. The curriculum is demanding, and she drives her teachers hard. She is legendary for standing firm against the city and union bureaucracies.
"They can't touch me because I'm steel," she says, without exaggeration. "Some people translate that into another five-letter word."
But Taylor also attends to her students' smallest daily needs. Some live in disordered households and have trouble getting up in the morning. So Taylor raised money to provide computerized wake-up calls. (Music followed by "Hi. This is Mrs. Taylor. I'm here to remind you that you have a date at 8 so don't be late.")
When the Board of Education ordered the schools to devote a day to workshops on drugs, AIDS and the like, Taylor asked, "One day?" She raised the money--again, outside school channels--to install a full-time medical clinic.
She arranged the school year so that students who do poorly in the first semester can redeem themselves in the second. She has started an academic summer camp.
"We are going to save these kids because they are mine," she says. "You come to Randolph, and you are mine."