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SECOND OPINIONS : First-Day School Jitters Return Year After Year : It's not easy being a principal facing the start of another term. But the experience of meeting new challenges is also exciting, gratifying and uplifting.

September 17, 1995|KATHLEEN RATTAY | Kathleen Rattay is principal of Granada Hills High School

As a classroom teacher, the butterflies in my stomach the night before school became an annual event as constant as summer's waning sun. With each year of experience I expected confidence to overcome the jitters, but it never happened. It helped to know that teacher friends also had troubled sleep interrupted by dreams of mortification and failure. And yearly, 15 minutes into the first class of the day, the jitters would be replaced by the joy and enthusiasm that come from working with kids.

Now as principal of a high school, the jitters are still there but the script for my nervous nightmares has been rewritten. It was really bad this time.

My August return to school was preceded by concentrated weeks with family and mornings of baking Mickey Mouse waffles for grandchildren. Goodbys at the airport to one daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren; goodbys in the driveway to youngest daughter, son-in-law and grandchild; tears as I memorized the lines of the children's small bodies and suppressed the realization that years may pass before our pool will again be filled with squeals from three grandchildren. More tears while we picked up toys and stripped the sheets from the crib and bunk beds.

Within hours, baby blues gave way to one of the worst cases of school anxiety yet. A chasm separated the me of Mickey Mouse waffle fame from the other me, principal of a high school with 3,000 students. My mind couldn't make the leap.

Day 1: I woke up before dawn, changed my clothes three times and made 15 trips carting my school stuff to the car before I was ready to leave the house. My normal 30-minute morning routine took two hours. The school gate I usually use was locked and my keys were buried in my satchel of school stuff. I used a different gate. Not an auspicious beginning.

The entrance to the main hallway holds a large bulletin board where seniors place colorful paper stars written with their names and the name of university they will be attending. Boston U and CSUN had fallen to the floor. With a thousand tasks ahead and a brain still addled from a restless night and nervous energy, I busied myself with replacing the fallen stars. I pinned Boston U and CSUN to the board somewhere near UCLA and stepped back to reread the students' names and their colleges: Berkeley, Arizona State, Mission, Wellesley. . . .

Memories of students' faces attached themselves to the names before me, and I wondered if they were having a better first day than I was. Then a rush of emotions and reflections: graduation and parental pride while we posed for pictures; awards night when more than a third of the students were honored; the ceremony marking the graduation of our first nursing assistant class, where students in shiny white uniforms received certificates and the right to take the state board exam. Another senior class launched into the adult world of work and college. I was feeling better.

My office was a jumbled mess from earthquake repair and three weeks of neglect. Sorted mail rose a full foot and leaned against a wall. On top of the stack my secretary had thoughtfully placed the report from the College Board on the results of the advanced placement exams. May as well start there. The news is mainly good: Students took and passed 267 exams, earning college credit for mastering difficult subjects such as calculus, English literature and composition, and biology. We're fortunate to have teachers who stretch students' minds, causing them to think, probe and analyze.

I spent only a few moments savoring success before grabbing my calculator to analyze the scores, comparing them to those of previous years and making plans for increasing the number passing the advanced placement exams. This is a typical knee-jerk reaction for educators: We spend more time finding the problems and making improvement plans than in celebrating successes. This year I want to spend a little more time recognizing the high achievement of our students and teachers while looking at problems and working on improvement.

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And we do have triumphs. We increased daily attendance by more than 3% through a comprehensive program linking class attendance to grades and specifying intervention measures. Last year we eliminated remedial 10th-grade science and created a support network to enable \o7 all\f7 students to learn biology. The statistical results of the project are positive and we've improved the program for this year. Despite budget cuts the school has maintained a thriving industrial arts department that offers drafting, wood, metal, automotive repair, and stagecraft. We're proud to teach five languages: American Sign Language, German, Italian, French and Spanish. Parent-community organizations are actively involved in the life of the school. The Math-Science Magnet has a waiting list of more than 300 students for the ninth grade. More than 100 students have signed up for our award-winning marching band. The list goes on.

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