It’s a little after 7 a.m., and I’m on patrol with Adrianne Leal, principal of Coral Reef High School. Her eyes are scanning the crowd of arriving students, not unlike the way a leopard scans an impala herd.
Suddenly her eyes narrow. “Hey!” she shouts. “HEY!” In the distance, a male student’s head turns. I can barely see him at this range, but Leal, who has High School Principal Laser Vision and probably also can see through walls, has detected that he is not wearing an approved Coral Reef uniform shirt.
“GET OVER HERE,” says Ms. Leal. The student trudges toward us and receives his detention — one of a dozen or so Leal will hand out this morning.
Leal, as you may have gathered, is a tough lady. Remember the way Don Shula, when he was displeased with people, would stare at them so hard that they would burst into flames? Leal has that same stare. She’s a no-B.S. New Yorker who first taught in the legendarily rough Bronx neighborhood known as Fort Apache. She has been principal at Coral Reef for 11 years, during which it has become one of the state’s top-ranked schools. In May Leal was named National Magnet School Principal of the Year.
There are 3,200 students at Coral Reef; I believe all of them are at least mildly terrified of Leal. I also believe she is fine with that.
As the non-approved-shirt-wearing student trudges away, Leal’s eyes are scanning again. “Hey!” she shouts again, spotting another violator. “HEY!”
The reason I’m on patrol with Leal is that my daughter attends Coral Reef, and I was asked to be the school’s Principal for a Day.
This is a national program under which community leaders spend a day in local high schools, sheepishly remembering what screw-ups they were when they were in high school. At least that’s what I’m doing. Every time Leal busts another student, my mind skitters back across the decades to my own high school career. I was not a model student. If Leal had been my high school principal, I would still be serving detentions.
My point is, if you’re one of those adults (and I admit I have been guilty of this) who think kids today are a bunch of coddled undisciplined brats who get away with behaving however they want, being Principal for a Day — or more accurately, watching a real principal on the job — might change your mind.
When classes begin at Coral Reef, I tour the school, which is vast, poking my head into classroom after classroom to see what’s going on. This is the part of high school education that has really changed. When I was in high school, most classes — algebra, history, English, whatever — basically consisted of us students sitting at desks while a teacher stood at the front of the room trying, with varying degrees of success, to keep us awake. Occasionally in a science class we’d do something active; for example, in biology, we dissected a frog to find out what was inside it (answer: the insides of a frog). But mostly it was us sitting and a teacher talking.
There is still a fair amount of this traditional teaching going on in the Coral Reef classrooms. But there’s also a LOT of other stuff happening. There are healthcare students practicing medical procedures on creepily realistic medical dummies; engineering students designing and building complex projects; agricultural students growing crops; art students working on paintings, sketches, sculptures, photography portfolios and other projects; music students performing classical music, jazz and opera; wise-ass students (this would have been me) putting together a pretty darned funny school-announcements show that is broadcast live; and much more.
I was deeply impressed. It almost made me want to go back to high school, except (a) I honestly don’t think I could keep up with these kids, and (b) I’m still a little afraid of Principal Leal.
Speaking of whom: She’s retiring at the end of this year, and she’s not sure what she wants to do next. Here’s a thought: Let’s say that for whatever reason, the Dolphins decide to let Joe Philbin go. Sure, they could hire another football guy, but how has that been working out lately? Why not consider a veteran disciplinarian with a proven record of getting results?
I don’t know if they’d make the playoffs. But they’d damn sure be wearing the proper uniforms.