||OF ALL THE PUBLICITY principal Howard Lappin has received since arriving at Foshay Middle School in 1989, his favorite is a brief letter to the Los Angeles Times. The letter from his former student at Van Nuys High recalled that a counselor there discouraged her from taking college preparatory courses because she was Hispanic.
When I told Lappin of the response of the counselor, he became visibly angry, wrote Laura Casas Frier in 1994. He marched down with me to the counselors office and saw to it that I was registered in the appropriate courses.
Lappin expects and encourages each student to reach his/her fullest potential...I went on to graduate from college and also from law school.
The letter, Lappin says, reflects his vision.
Kids need to believe that they can succeed, he says, and many have never been told that. And they have to be held to very high standards. You cant say that theyre a minority, theyre poor, and therefore you cant teach the same. Thats garbage.
These beliefs have fueled dramatic changes at what has become the K-12 Foshay Learning Center since the strapping, white-haired Lappin became principal nine years ago.
At that time the campus a mile west of USC was plagued with annual dropout and daily absence rates of around 20 percent. Many students hung out in the graffiti-marred halls during class, fights erupted frequently and between 200 and 300 suspensions were issued each year. Test scores ranked near the bottom among middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The situation was so grave that Foshay was designated a Program Improvement School, with the state threatening to withhold funds and administer the school through a trustee.
Today fewer than 2 percent of Foshays 3,300 students drop out, and only about 6 percent are absent daily. Students attend class, seldom fight or deface the clean walls. Suspen-sions are down to fewer than 60 a year, and test scores have risen from the 20th percentile in math to 30-35 and from 15th in reading and language to 23-30 (the variations relate to the year tests were given and the grade levels of students).
These positive changes have been aided by improvements in structure and equipment. The school recently opened a bright, $1 million, state-of-the-art library which provides not only Internet access and research capabilities, but colorful neon art work and stuffed chairs where children can curl up and read.
Lappin with middle schoolers: Hes like a father you can see the pride...
Lappin, 58, has also installed at least four computers in every classroom and created a separate computer center. To help children losing health benefits through recent state and federal legislation, he raised $135,000 and built a seven-room campus health center, which serves students and their parents and is available to other local residents.
He is rated an excellent fund-raiser, and specially funded programs, entitlements and grants have pushed Foshays budget to more than $11 million annually.
All of this resulted in the states decision in 1996 to declare Foshay a California Distinguished School, official notice that it had turned things around and was again helping students learn. The school was also chosen one of nine prototype schools for the New American Schools Develop-ment Corp., a private, non-profit organization funded by business leaders during the George Bush administration. The organization paid for five extra teachers, donated about $1 million in computer equipment and provided nearly a month of paid training time for every teacher.
As part of this program, Foshay became a kindergarten-through-12th-grade Learn-ing Center, keeping students together at the same campus throughout their educational careers and letting the same teachers monitor their growth.
These accomplishments have generated national recognition for Lappin. In January he flew to Sacramento to be recognized by Gov. Pete Wilson during the State of the State message, along with MBA candidate Edwin Franklin, one of many USC students who volunteer at Foshay.
Last August Lappin was chosen the California secondary school Principal of the Year by the Association of California School Administrators and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
He was also named a Readers Digest American Hero in Education in 1995. And in 1994, Lappin and other Foshay representatives were invited to a White House ceremony to celebrate the signing of President Clintons education initiative, Goals 2000.
HOWARD LAPPIN WORKS HARD for his students, who are 67 percent Hispanic and 33 percent African American, because he believes theyre as capable of learning as he was. Lappin began his edu-cation 50 years ago near Foshay at Shenandoah Street School on Adams Boulevard near La Brea Avenue.
Every one of our kids, he says, seated in his office beneath a picture of himself with President Clinton, kids who are poor, kids who are of color, are capable of learning, the same way I was five miles from here.
Lappin, who later attended Overland Avenue Elementary, Palms Junior High and Hamilton High, graduated from UCLA in 1961 and earned a teaching credential the following year.
Hired as a history teacher at San Fernando Junior High in 1962, he entered a masters degree program and moved into administration, working at three LAUSD high schools Van Nuys, Bell and South Gate before coming to Foshay.
I think Ive been good at it, he says, because I believe the only way you can make a difference is by involving teachers and then other members of the school: staff, parents, community and kids. I dont think many of my colleagues believe that by involving teachers in what is going on, it can make a difference.
Here we sit down together, look at problems and try to come up with answers. We do it on an equal footing and we have to come to a consensus.
And I guess I have some skills to motivate. The Los Angeles Times described me as charismatic. That made me feel good. I have a strong vision and belief system that I was able to convey to the staff.
LAPPIN'S VISION CALLED FOR tackling the biggest problem first, and at Foshay the biggest problem in 1989 was that students did not go to class. The bell would ring and no one would go, he says.
To rectify the situation, Lappin and his staff agreed to patrol the halls each period, sending students not in class to the tardy room. As tardies piled up, students faced conferences with the dean and their parents. Suddenly attendance improved.
With the staff focusing on education, Lappin says, students started enjoying school and were less interested in fighting.
Lappin and his staff also worked to make the campus clean and safe. Students have to be proud of where they are and safe where they are, he says. If kids are afraid, they dont learn. Fear wipes out learning.
And with upper schoolers: He saw to it I was registered for [college prep] courses...
To clean up the school, Lappin had some walls painted a calm off-white and others in colorful murals.
He also participated with USC and its Family of Five Schools initiative in programs such as Kid Watch, which identified the safest routes for students to walk to school and recruited neighborhood volunteers to call 911 if they saw children in danger.
Despite vast improvements, Lappin worries that much remains to be done. Im not happy with test scores in the 20th percentile and theres no excuse for that, he says. Its something we have to address and we are addressing.
Walking through the hall recently a few minutes before the end of class, he spots a teenage girl leaving a room early. Young lady, come here, he says sternly. Go back inside. I didnt hear a bell ring. Theres two minutes until the class ends.
Thats another disappointment, he tells a reporter touring the school. I dont bat 100 percent. The teacher cant control the class. Well get a dean up there Monday and get her some help.
The principal, who seems warm, open and honest with his staff, can also be frank.
I dont like being made to look like a fool, he recently told a clerk who couldnt find a students schedule for her mother who had come to campus.
Says Regina Boutte, a Foshay counselor: He gives you all the leeway, all the support to do what you are supposed to do. That includes training and compensation. But he wants dedicated, hard-working people. If youre not doing your job, you will hear about it.
Despite this, Lappin seems to have the staff and faculty solidly behind him.
Hes far superior to any of the principals Ive ever had, says Zoe Stein, a sixth-grade teacher whos been in education 41 years. Im 63. Id probably be retired if he werent here.
Others say that Lappin gets most animated and excited when students do well.
Hes all aglow, says Rick Dailey, a broad-shouldered special-ed teacher with a shaved head. Hes like a father. When the academic decathlon team did well recently, you could see the pride. It was so evident.
LAPPIN, WHO HAS one of the academic decathlon teams blue and gray jackets hanging in his office, wants to continue enjoying his work for some time, but not forever. Hes currently pursuing a doctorate in education at USC.
It might be fun to teach at the college level, he says. He also wants to spend time with his wife of 35 years, Ilene, and two daughters living in San Diego and Los Angeles.
When he leaves, Lappin will know that things have improved.
When I came to this school I used to stop kids from checking out and beg them to stay, he says. Our reputation was so bad that they would leave.
Now were so crowded that I have to bus kids out, which breaks my heart. Parents fight to get in.
Foshays success story is summed up by Helen Carrillo, a seventh-grader who Lappin recently convinced to raise her grade from C to B in social studies.
I think he really cares about us, says Carrillo, her face glowing as she discusses the principals encouragement.
She alternately fiddles with strings from the cape of her white school sweatshirt and rests her head on a table while waiting for a reporter to write down her words, but when the interview finishes, she delivers a bombshell.
Id better get use to this [being interviewed], she says. Im going to be the first Latina president of the United States.