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thedrifter
01-30-06, 08:17 AM
Posted on Mon, Jan. 30, 2006
A good start for the colonel
Ex-Marine is improving security at Olney's two high schools
By MENSAH M. DEAN
deanm@phillynews.com 215-854-5949

WEARING a grayish business suit accentuated by a string of purple and pink beads made by his 5-year-old daughter, retired Marine Col. Christopher Baker Jr. didn't exactly look like a fear-inducing school reformer.

Standing at ground zero - the Olney High School cafeteria - Baker didn't have a bullhorn, or a bat.

As he walked about last week, he didn't salute, order anyone to do push-ups or call the students soldiers, troops or cadets.

Baker, hired in November to bring order and safety back to Olney High, is so low-key, in fact, that none of the students interviewed for this article knew of him.

"In a way that's good because that probably means that they are not in a lot of trouble," explained Baker, who'll turn 57 in two weeks.

"The general feeling was, they're bringing in this military guy, and he's going to start beating people up and yelling and screaming and breaking backs," he said.

"But that's not what it's about. It's about management skills, putting in systems and letting folks who report to you understand what the mission is, and what my intent is," he added.

The School District of Philadelphia is paying Baker $400 a day to manage the noneducational side of Olney. That means holding down the fort on security and discipline, and ensuring that the hallways, cafeterias and grounds stay orderly.

If successful, Baker, who spent 30 years in the Marines and holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, will have solved a riddle that has bedeviled many others.

Olney, at Duncannon Avenue near Front Street, for years has been marked by violent outbursts, fires and abysmal academic performance; one of the worst attendance rates in the state, and a front-office revolving door that has seen seven principals - permanent, acting and interim - come and go since 1997.

In September, attempting to get a handle on things, the district separated Olney into two schools. The district's Web site identifies the schools as Olney East 705, and Olney West 704.

The move only gave students another reason to fight: eastside against westside.

In November, Harvey Rice - at the time the state's school-safety watchdog in Philadelphia - told the Daily News that there were more than 20 fights on one day, that students were afraid to enter the cafeterias and that security at the doors separating the two schools was lax to nonexistent.

A week later, Baker was hired. As executive director of operations, he works closely with Olney's two principals, Rita Hardy of 704 and Newton A. Brown III, of 705.

"Over the past few months things have improved 100 percent," said Brown.

"I can get more into the academic portion of the school because we have people helping me manage climate. So for that, I am grateful."

Said Hardy: "The halls, we have regained control of. Students are in classrooms learning."

Students had their own take on the new system.

"We still be rumbling. It's just too much security, so we got to chill," said one boy who declined to give his name.

"They're trying to turn this into a good school, but ain't nobody gonna listen to what they got to say," Alvin Reynolds, 14, said last week during lunch.

When asked his opinion of Baker, Alvin stared blankly. "Who that? I ain't never seen him. I ain't never heard of him."

Sophia Perez-DeMarco, 14, said she also hadn't heard of Baker. But she had a good reason. It was her first day at school in weeks.

She was not alone. Just 60 percent of Olney's students show up for classes daily - the lowest attendance rate in the city, district officials said.

"There's too many problems and fights. It's just retarded. I was at home staying away from all this," Sophia said during the closing minutes of lunch, a time when school officials allow students to jump rope and play gambling-free card games.

Olney's teachers are more optimistic .

Mary Miceli, 22, a first-year teacher, had just five students in her 11th-grade English class one day. Most had failed to return following a building evacuation prompted by electricians' mistaking a box of 40-year-old batteries for a suspicious device.

Following class, Miceli said that hearing Baker speak gave her a sense that he is a different type of disciplinarian.

"I hate when you see certain guards swearing at kids or grabbing their shirts. I hate that. His views seem to be very different. He cares. This is not just a paycheck-type position."

Joel Sell, 29, has taught English at Olney for six years. The multiple principals have devastated continuity, he said.

He's pulling for Baker in his new role.

"Any help, any assistance in keeping kids in line, getting them in class so I can teach them, and being able to deal with kids who are disruptive - I'm all for it," he said.

Baker, a Navy brat who claims Boston as his hometown, knows his hands are full. While he has been involved with schools here and in other cities as a motivational speaker and as the founder of tutoring and scholarship programs, this is his first in-school job.

So, what's he going to do first?

"I'd like to make sure that every student has a wall locker. I'd like to make sure that the computers work. I'd like to make sure that the teachers are able to teach in an environment that they feel that they can be efficient in," he said. "Very basic things."

Since arriving, Baker said he believes he has helped to bring "a semblance of order" to the hallways, confidence to the teachers, and security to students and parents.

"This is Management 101, but it's all necessary," he said.

"Sometimes, to get a troop to like you or respect you, all you have to do is give him a cigarette or a piece of candy...

"They think the world of you when they're cold and wet. And right now, if you gave a student a locker that means a whole lot to that guy."

For students who continue to misbehave, Baker said, he is increasing the number of suspensions as well as trips to accommodation rooms and detention hall - on school days and Saturdays.

Schools CEO Paul Vallas said Olney already is a better school because of Baker and changes made before his arrival. These included shortening lunch periods by 27 minutes, transferring overaged students, and hiring two school-climate managers and community groups for security.

"I think the colonel is off to a good start," said Vallas, who is interviewing other former military officers for similar jobs at troubled high schools.

Ellie