Successful Clinton Principal Takes Vision Bronxwide
By JORDAN MOSS
Conventional wisdom has it that large urban high schools don't work. Over the last six years, Norman Wechsler proved the naysayers wrong. DeWitt Clinton High School, once almost left for dead and threatened with closure, surged during Wechsler's six-year stewardship.
Now that he has been appointed by Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew as the new Bronx superintendent of high schools, educators and parents are hoping Wechsler can bring the same energy and determination, and record of accomplishment, to the borough's 22 other public high schools.
The 51-year-old Kingsbridge Heights resident and veteran educator isn't wasting any time. He has already filled four principal vacancies (including Clinton, where Geraldine Ambrosia, an assistant principal at Christopher Columbus High, will replace Wechsler and be the first woman to lead the once all-male institution). Wechsler has made plans to visit every high school by early October and has begun to lay out his vision for "creating schools of excellence -- student by student." Most schools and districts have inspirational, if somewhat vague, mottos like this, and like all professionals, Wechsler is sometimes prone to speaking in the jargon of his chosen field. The difference is he has a track record to back it up.
At Clinton, almost every indicator of educational success and institutional health took a sharp turn for the better during Wechsler's watch. Attendance went from 74 percent earlier in the decade to 90 percent now, the dropout rate plunged to under 3 percent, and during Wechsler's six years in the principal's chair, the number of students accepted to college reached 90 percent. The school has even garnered national attention, with U.S. News and World Report naming Clinton one of 96 outstanding American high schools in its January 1999 issue.
Wechsler, whose office is at Lehman High School in the east Bronx, is betting his experience at Clinton can help the borough's other high schools succeed, too.
"I want to try to ... use what I've learned to help schools pursue excellence, to help more of their students reach the new more rigorous graduation requirements," he said.
Those new requirements will be among the top challenges facing the new high schools chief. Beginning this year, all graduating seniors will be required to pass a state Regents exam in English, and Regents exams in math, history and science will be phased in in succeeding years.
Wechsler, who recently earned his doctorate in Educational Administration from Columbia University's Teacher's College, said there's already some sign that Bronx high schools are headed in the right direction in terms of the new, tougher requirements. Last year, while the percentage of students passing the English Regents exam dipped slightly, the number of students taking the exam quadrupled. With so many more kids taking the harder test, "[t]hat we were able to keep the passing percentage even close is miraculous," Wechsler said. In the past, he added, "students weren't being pressed to take courses that terminated in these 3-hour rigorous exams."
Wechsler also pointed to boroughwide attendance improvement (it's close to 85 percent) as another encouraging trend, but he stressed it's still not good enough.
Though there are many different kinds of schools in the borough, Wechsler said there are some basic measurements of success that can be applied across the board. "Excellent attendance would have to be an element of a school of excellence. A very low dropout rate. A very low suspension and incident rate." But Wechsler says there's no magic number that a school can achieve and be satisfied with. "I think it's a goal that helps us proceed on our journey but in fact we will never arrive at a point in which we are satisfied," he said. "It's about engaging in a process of continuous improvement; you can always get better. Unless you have all kids passing, etc., you haven't arrived."
Wechsler will also encourage Bronx high schools to learn from each other. Schools are sometimes "hesitant or reluctant to always share as much of the wonderful things they are doing," he said.
At Clinton, the principal's office frequently doubled as a classroom. Wechsler taught an early-morning Current Events class based on reading The New York Times to a select group of students, and he often had classes down to his office to convey the school's mission and academic expectations.
Asked if he was going to miss the daily contact with students, Wechsler said, "I am tremendously."
But, in return, Wechsler now has the opportunity to implement his vision on a much larger stage and help thousands more students succeed. To do that, he said, he has to get a handle on the challenges facing each school, rather than just shoot for better boroughwide statistics.
"I have the obligation and responsibility to insure that every single Bronx high school is giving all of its students [the opportunity to excel and to] do whatever I can to create excellent schools," Wechsler said. "And I'm going to use many different strategies and provide as much technical assistance and support [as possible], but part of it is I have to assess each school, not just analyze data."
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