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

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | 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.

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