Alternative to What?
Alternative to What?
The true story of a principal’s first assignment at an Alternative Magnet School in the nation’s 2nd largest school district
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Alternative to What? is the shocking and humorous story of a first-time principal who uses persistence, creativity and humor to turn a dysfunctional K-12 urban experimental school, located in a gang-infested area of Los Angeles, into a successful racially integrated high-achieving learning environment for students from diverse racial, economic and cultural backgrounds.

Alternative to What?

Sometimes life has an odd way of playing out. Feeling a combination of butterflies and excitement, I sat in front of the empty classroom, waiting for my graduate students. The previous Friday I had retired as Principal of Hollywood High School, (yes, the Hollywood High School), and here it was-–Monday night-–and I was now a university professor, beginning to teach the last class students needed to take before receiving their Master’s Degree and credential in School Administration. I had all kinds of ideas and illusions about what my first class would be like. I was correct in having anticipated that as they came into the classroom, some would sit in the back row, deliberately not making eye contact, and some would sit in the front row, pen in hand, eyes twinkling, ready for the “wisdom of the ages.” What I really hadn't comprehended was the fact that these were not young students living at home and enjoying school. They were adults who had worked all day, had mates, babies, responsibilities, and often the flu, and after teaching reluctant students all day had rushed from their schools to become my reluctant students at night.

My students seemed genuinely fond of me, but I was more than fond of them. I was amazed at how hard they worked and how determined they were to succeed. One example was found in an attractive young woman with curly, bouncy, golden hair, and sparkling blue eyes. Bubbling over with personality and enthusiasm, she was dressed in the latest style; she was a perfect example of what was known as the “Valley Girl.” The evening's class began with each student introducing him or herself and telling a little bit about his or her assignment and aspirations. We quickly learned that this young lady was in her first credential class after graduation. Since this was the last class for the Master’s Degree, I thought, she must really know somebody. Thus she gained the title, “Princess.” She was naïvely enthused about being assigned to work with minority children in Watts, in South Los Angeles, and she felt that she could make a real difference in her students’ lives. I could see my other students looking at each other skeptically, but I congratulated her on her assignment, reserving comment.

At the next class meeting her curls were a little less bouncy, and as we all shared that week's experiences, she soldiered on, participating in the class. The following week her bouncy curls had straightened out and she had on almost no makeup. No one commented, but we all knew what was happening. At the beginning of each class I always asked if anything exciting or different had happened at my students’ schools since our last meeting, and “Princess” could hardly contain her excitement as she told us how her entire elementary campus had been locked-down that day due to police activity. There had been shots fired in the community and police thought the shooter had run into the school. Her descriptions were graphic. She said that the moment they announced the lockdown, every child in her first grade class had immediately said, “I have to pee." One member of the class asked, “What did you do?” and she replied, “We used a wastebasket,” prompting another student to comment, “At least she had a wastebasket!” She went on to say that in her panic, she didn't know why, but she picked up her cell phone and called her father in the San Fernando Valley, telling him that her school was on lock-down because of gunshots. He immediately started shouting at her, “I told you not to go to Watts. Come home!” This special young woman not only did not go home, she stayed, went back the second year, and started working on her administration credential.

I had all types of graduate students. I will never forget the young man who was obviously a coach, as evidenced by his cap and P.E. clothes. When he asked if he could speak to me for a moment in the hall, I said, “Of course,” excused myself from the classroom, and went out into the hallway with him. Deflecting his eyes, he said to me, “I've paid my money and I know you're going to pass me, so why don't you just let me stay home and give me credit for this class?” I was taken aback for a moment, and then responded, “Because I worked my butt off to make this an interesting class, and you are going to work your butt off to get credit for it.” Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Okay,” went back to the back row, did all the work, attended every session, and he finished with the top grade in the class.

Many potentially excellent would-be-administrators never make it, because none of the books and courses in administration ever taught them how to survive. Combining the dull administrative information from the textbook with real-life experiences seemed to be the key.

Once classroom teachers cross the threshold of their classroom door and enter into the world of administration, they all but leave the field of education and enter the field of politics. The rules of the game are now different, and are, for the most part, unwritten.

We had been discussing this point when that P.E. teacher who wanted to buy his grade asked, “What was your first administrative assignment?”

I answered, “I was principal of an alternative school.”

The teacher then asked a question that I have heard for many years, “Alternative to what?”

I pondered giving the “textbook” answer, but reality got the better of me. That was the moment when much of the planned curriculum went up in smoke, and in the remaining haze, I decided to give them a glimpse into the “white knuckle” world of school administration. I closed the book, told them to get a firm grip on their desks, and began the journey.

Dr. Jeanne E. Hon has had a rewarding (and she says hilarious) career with the nation's second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District. Married at seventeen (causing her parents considerable hysteria), she worked as a secretary to put her young World War II veteran-husband through college. She then entered college herself, and to her husband's surprise, attended for the next twelve years, simultaneously achieving many university degrees and a son and daughter. (He wasn't surprised about the son and daughter!) Her experiences as a psychologist, counselor, coordinator of the gifted, principal, and administrative consultant afforded her a wonderful opportunity to view educational reform, integration, innovation and chaos.

She has been a lecturer at the university level since 1974, giving her the opportunity to view education from both theoretical and practical aspects. She has had too many awards to mention, from being selected as The L.A. Times' Teacher-of-the-Year to the “Honor of Excellence” Program, cosponsored by the National Association of School Principals and the Council of Chief State Officers, recognizing the outstanding principal from each state. (She states, “With my usual luck, the President of the United States was unable to present the award, and at the last minute Vice-President Dan Quayle presented the award in his place.”)

She felt that her most interesting assignment was as a State Department lecturer. Requested by the United States State Department to lecture throughout West Africa to the Peace Corps and Secondary Teachers, she was part of an educational reform process that Senegal embarked upon. Although she has had numerous articles published in prestigious educational journals, this is her first foray into narrative: relating her particular experiences—informative, shocking, and humorous––in the fledgling magnet program at a K through 12 Alternative School in LAUSD. Dr. Hon presently owns an educational consulting firm in Los Angeles, which she started upon her retirement as Principal of “world Famous Hollywood High School,” and lives with her long-suffering husband of 62 years.


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