A first-person account of how a nuclear-powered principal saved a Philadelphia school in a collapsing inner-city neighborhood. Cartwright—the youngest of 13 children who were so poor that they often went without shoes—worked her way through college as a maid, began to teach, and then moved up through the Philadelphia school system, eventually becoming principal of the James G. Blaine Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion (whose pretty name belied its desolate neighborhood: its students saw death and violence, and knew hunger, cold, and desperation). Cartwright set out to make the school a safe and joyous refuge for learning; one of her first acts was to take off her shoes and stockings, drop to her knees, and scrub the foul-smelling floor of the children's bathroom (many similiarly dramatic incidents dot the text, coauthored with Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reporter d'Orso). Cartwright defied or circumvented the school establishment regularly—for example, by insisting that the administering of achievement tests be as clean as the bathroom floor. As a result, the school's achievement scores dropped at first, but then began to climb as the children mastered the concepts and not simply the answers, which had been readily available during the previous school regime. Cartwright was able to turn the school around because, above all, she insisted that teachers respect each child's potential; that children respect their teachers and parents; and that parents be involved in their children's education. As gripping as her school tales are those of the neighborhood's deterioration, of the start of the crack epidemic, and of the benighted efforts of reformers who annually touted new programs to revive the schools. Cartwright rejected most of these efforts and continued on her own way. Few share Cartwright's drive and courage, but her advice to make schools a better place just one step, one room, at a time may hearten all those overwhelmed by grandiose proposals for ``educational reform.''
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