ST. CLOUD, MN—According to 58-year-old Charles Van Hise, principal of Harriet Bishop High School and a 26-year veteran of the St. Cloud School District, too much of his staff's time is devoted to "problem students" who require special disciplinary or scholastic attention.
"It's the oldest story in the world," Van Hise said. "The squeaky wheels get the grease. I have them in here every day. Today it's to complain about 'intellectually lazy' teachers; tomorrow, I'll bet you anything it's the elimination of the arts program. And I swear to you, if I have to break up one more rumble in the hallway, I'm going to snap."
Van Hise lifted his blinds to reveal a small group of students eating lunch in the courtyard.
"Excuse me one moment," said Van Hise, leaning out his window to address the gathering of students. "That music is not allowed on campus! Extinguish your incense, please."
Returning to his seat, Van Hise said, "Those honors-program students think they own the school."
Harriet Bishop High, which once had one of Minnesota's highest rates of physical violence among students, recently turned its record around, reducing in-school violence by 22 percent through programs initiated by Van Hise, who has a reputation as a staunch disciplinarian.
"These items were confiscated from high-school students, believe it or not," said Van Hise, displaying a cardboard box containing brass knuckles, a Swiss Army knife, and several issues of Daniel Clowes' Eightball comics. "It goes without saying that the students who brought these items into my school are long gone."
Van Hise credits the success of his program to those teachers who have volunteered to patrol the hallways during their off-periods, keeping an eye out for "class-cutters and music-heads."
"I'd have time to do that myself I didn't spend half my workday addressing the busybody club's concern du jour," Van Hise said. "Every time I turn my back, there's another petition on my desk. Look, I have one right now. It's the same thing every year. We hold student-council elections, the student body selects its leader, and the next day, like clockwork, I have a team of kids in here chewing my ear off about the unfair vote-counting practices and… I don't even know what, to tell you the truth."
Harriet Bishop High narrowly escaped federal discipline last fall, when the student body succeeded in lifting its aggregate standardized-test scores out of the danger zone. According to Van Hise, the upsurge occurred "with no help from the bottom feeders."
"We are running a school here. Not a gymnasium. Not a… a… a… roller derby. And certainly not a Model U.N.," Van Hise said. "I've got the same advice for all of them: Sit down, shut up, and you'll be out of here in four years."
That afternoon, strolling the hallways with a bottle of acetone and a rag, Van Hise wiped the words "cock smoker" from his portrait. Later, he paused before a display case devoted to football awards. Taped inside of the case was a poster titled "The Three Pillars of Education." Two of the columns, labeled "Academics" and "The Arts," were crumbling. The third, labeled "Sports," was pristine, reaching to the clouds.
"You'll notice whoever drew this… cartoon… didn't care to sign his name to it," said Van Hise, searching his key ring for the display-case key. "You tell me: Should we have more people watching over the theater kids while they paint their sets, or should I make sure someone's keeping tabs on the school on weekend nights when some kid wants to break in here and vandalize my office?"
"One of them coated my office floor in Vaseline," Van Hise added. "I nearly busted my head."
Van Hise was not pessimistic in every respect. He reserved his esteem for a certain set of "solid, devoted, quiet-minded students."
"Solid, average students who aren't causing trouble and aren't trying to attract any undue attention to themselves," Van Hise said. "Your Average Joes and Plain Janes. They're the ones who bring our scores up. No question in my mind. The rest just cancel each other out."