The Day In The Life Of A School Principal

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High school principals Peter Cahall of Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., and Walter Jackson of Alief Taylor High School in Houston, take NPR inside a day in the life of their job. They talk about the challenges of wearing many hats to provide visionary and practical leadership for their school.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. To their students, high school principals may appear to wield God-like powers, but they have many constituencies to answer to, including teachers, parents, students, public health officials, and they have bosses of their own: a supervisor, a school board.

The job description calls on them to provide overall leadership and vision, but some have been known to serve lunch in the cafeteria, fix a leaky sink, shovel snow and scrape gum off the gym floor. Then there's drugs, and violence, and truancy; and, this year, swine flu.

Many schools around the country started one, or two, or even three weeks ago; but Labor Day is the unofficial last day of summer, so today we continue our series Day in the Life with high school principals.

If that's you, call and tell us your story. What is your day like? What can you tell us about your job that we don't know? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll focus on President Obama's address to school kids. There are a lot of opinions about what he should say and whether he should say it. We'll hear excerpts from a number of op-eds on the controversy. If you would like to weigh in, you can send email now. That address again is

But first, a day in the life of high school principals. With us here in the studio is Pete Cahall. He is the principal of Woodrow Wilson High School here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. PETER CAHALL (Principal, Woodrow Wilson High School): It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And also with us is Walter Jackson, principal of Alief Taylor High School, which is in the suburbs on the outskirts of Houston. He's at a studio on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. WALTER JACKSON (Principal, Alief Taylor High School): It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And Walter, why don't we begin with you. Who gives you more trouble, the kids or the adults?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: That's a tough way to start this conversation, but in many cases, I have more issues with parents than I do students. Students pretty much understand what their expectations are in a schoolhouse. Sometimes parents kind of want to have it their way, and they sometimes need to be heard, and we certainly understand that, and we're willing to work with them.

CONAN: For example, what - last week, last Friday, were there any parents complaining to you?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, generally, and I hate to sound like I'm painting, you know, this with a very broad brush, but in most cases, you'll have parent issues with whether or not my child got an opportunity to play on the football team on Friday night, versus is there an academic issue in the classroom, or when I can meet with you, you know, for a parent conference.

CONAN: Pete Cahall, I saw you smiling a little bit as Walter was saying that kids are easier to deal with than the grownups?

Mr. CAHALL: Yes, I would agree with that, and you know, I have to say, though, at Wilson, this is my fourth principalship and the fourth district that I've served in, and I've got to say the Wilson parents are extremely supportive of me and the administration and the school as a whole. But yeah, it's the adult problems that are the tougher ones to deal with because you want - you know, the kids, they're kids - they're going to make mistakes. But you know, we have to be responsive to parents' concerns and issues.

CONAN: All right. Describe your school for us, if you would. It's an inner-city school?

Mr. CAHALL: it's an inner-city school. We've got about 1,500 students. We're a very diverse school community. We're 50 percent African-American, 25 percent white, 16 percent Latino, nine percent Asian. We have kids from 84 countries speaking over 42, 43 languages. So it's the real world, and that's one of the things that I love about it.

We've got some kids who are the best and brightest in the country - going to Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania - and we've got kids who struggle to read. So we've got the entire spectrum; but I love Wilson because of its diversity.

CONAN: Walter Jackson, tell us a little bit about Alief Taylor High School.

Mr. JACKSON: Taylor is similar in many respects, but our largest group is our Hispanic population, roughly 50 percent Hispanic at Taylor, 40 percent African-American, five percent white and five person Asian, give or take a few in there.

Again, parents are very supportive, and I certainly agree with my colleague, but generally speaking, again, our biggest issues are sometimes when we do not agree what is best for, not only the child, but the community and the school and the student in respect to the community and the school.

CONAN: And help us out a little. I think all of us know who Woodrow Wilson was, but who was Alief Taylor?

Mr. JACKSON: Alief Taylor is named after a famed teacher, Edward "Doc" Taylor, who is still very, very active in our community. He taught some 30 years in the Alief Independent School District, which is right outside of Houston. Doc is still around and very, very supportive of what we do, but Alief in many respects, 25 years ago, was a middle-class, primarily suburban district. It now primarily services more urban issues and inner-city issues, but again, we've been very, very successful academically and athletically and with our national merit scholars and students that are moving on to, you know, Division I schools and Harvard, Yale and University of Texas and Rice University.

CONAN: You've both spoken about a very diverse student body. Cultural issues, religious issues, Pete Cahall?

Mr. CAHALL: All of the above. I think you have to be sensitive to all those issues when you're bringing 1,500 students together from diverse backgrounds.

CONAN: There must be holidays you'd never heard of before.

Mr. CAHALL: Yeah, and - you know, practices, religious, cultural practices that I never - and I've learned a lot. That's one of the great things about being an educator and a principal is that I learn every day.

CONAN: We're in Ramadan now. Are there kids observing Ramadan in your school?

Mr. CAHALL: Yeah, and again, we've tried to be sensitive because a lot of the kids fast. So we try to have areas that they can be in during lunch so that they're not around the other students who are eating. And, you know, I think they do prayers at certain times of the day. So we want to have - make accommodations for them for that.

CONAN: And for you, Walter Jackson?

Mr. JACKSON: Yes, some of the most respectful students on our campus, and we arrange places in our building where they can fast and, you know, if they just need time to be to themselves. But again, I agree with my colleague, you know, being in a diverse city like Houston, Texas, many, many, many diversities and students that are coming from backgrounds with holidays and cultural differences that I've never heard of, but it is our job to really respect that and to honor those diversities.

CONAN: And not just respect their beliefs and their practices, but to explain it to the other kids who may not understand them, either.

Mr. JACKSON: Absolutely, and even not only to our kids but to make certain that our students - I mean, our teachers, excuse me, are sensitive to the needs of the diversity on our campus. And to answer your question earlier, we've not really had major issues culturally or racially on our campus. I think Alief has been such a diverse community for so long now, we've just become the great melting pot of Houston, Texas, if you will.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us, We want to hear from principals today. School principals, tell us something about your job that would surprise us, and we'll start with David. David's calling us from Minneapolis.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon. I'm actually the administrative director of a charter school here in Minneapolis, and so, many of my functions are similar to that of a principal, but as a charter school, we're a one-school district. So we're an entire district, and so I also have many of the functions that a superintendent would have.

CONAN: And so you're - that sounds like you've got a big administrative burden, too.

DAVID: Yes, for sure. So some of the examples I - one of the examples I was thinking of as I was listening to your comments earlier, not only so with respect to, say H-1-N-1 - a principal in a traditional high school might be directed by the district offices, okay, be sure to send this letter home to all your families and these kinds of things, we actually have to figure out what that letter is going to say. We don't have any district office that's going to tell us what to do. We figure out what to do, and then we send those letters home.

Another example, I have to balance those kinds of things with - I meet directly with the board of directors. So that's my direct - I directly report to the board of directors here at our school and have bi-monthly conversations with our board chair to talk about strategy and big-picture things, finances and all those kinds of things.

CONAN: Interesting, you mentioned H-1-N-1, also known as the swine flu. And Walter Jackson, you I'm sure, will get directives from your school district about how to deal with this issue, correct?

Mr. JACKSON: Absolutely. In the spring, when the H-1-N-1 virus first appeared, we received direction from our district office, and our district is a fairly large district, some 45,000 students. So there are directors and assistant superintendents and the superintendent and the board who can help give us direction in relation to that.

But I think what is more key is that the direction that we receive from the central office is in direct synch with what the community would like to see with regard to these kinds of pandemics.

CONAN: And Pete Cahall, I assume the same is true for you?

Mr. CAHALL: Yeah, I agree. The district would provide with the resources and the communication with our school community to share the information with them, and you know, I understand where the caller's coming from. I grew up in New Jersey, where again, a single district where, you know, the principal was the superintendent, and all the things would fall on him. I can't even imagine what his job is like.

DAVID: A busy one.

CONAN: David - a busy one. What time do you get up in the morning, David?

DAVID: You know, school just started last week. I was sleeping in until probably 7:30. I have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, too, so she's always nudging us around seven, but I'll be getting up at 6:30, 7:00 starting now. We start school at nine, actually, and I get home at six, and…

CONAN: That doesn't sound too bad.

DAVID: I'm at school right now, Neal, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVID: We started school this past week, but I'm in school here today for a couple hours to clean up my office.

CONAN: All right, well good luck to you, David, Thank you very much.

DAVID: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye, and I assume you guys, well, it's nine to five, I'm sure.

Mr. CAHALL: Oh yeah, and then some. I'm usually at work by, you know, 6:30, seven and usually don't leave until seven or eight, sometimes nine or 10. And some weeks you have, you know, two and three of those nights or days, and you know, some weeks are, you know, you're only working 12 hours a day.

CONAN: I'm told you spend about an hour a day greeting students and teachers.

Mr. CAHALL: I do. The first hour, the kids are coming in from eight until about nine. You know, I stand out in the hallway saying good morning, how are you doing? Good game last night. How are you doing in that class we talked about? Again, building relationships with kids, getting to know them, being visible and accessible.

CONAN: And Walter Jackson, is it part of your job to go to the basketball game, the football game and so on?

Mr. JACKSON: Absolutely. I have 11 administrators on my administrative team, two associate principals and eight assistant principals, along with myself, called the coordinating principal. I, too, certainly feel like it's important to be out and about, greeting students, and I try to make that part of my day each day, and then during each passing period. Just to give you a snippet of what my school looks like, it's a pretty large school with 141 doors. So it's kind of hard to always be in the right place to say hello to everybody at the same time.

CONAN: We're talking about a day in the life of a high school principal. If that's you, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It's Labor Day, back-to-school time, almost flu season. We're told to expect a resurgence of swine flu this year. There's talks of quarantines and vaccine trials.

Tomorrow, questions and answers on swine flu. You can email us your questions now. The address is Then join us tomorrow for that.

Today, we're continuing a new series we began last week, Day in the Life. We're talking with high school principals about the work they do. If that's you, what is your day like? What can you tell us about your job we don't know? 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Peter Cahall, principal of Woodrow Wilson High School here in Washington, D.C.; and Walter Jackson of Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas. Pete, do you eat the cafeteria food?

Mr. CAHALL: Absolutely. It's actually pretty good. They actually have contractors, have contracted… They started that last year, my first year, and the kids thought I was responsible for the better food. So they gave me credit for that, but if I didn't eat the cafeteria food, I wouldn't eat.

CONAN: Walter Jackson, do you eat the cafeteria food?

Mr. JACKSON: On occasion, but most times I bring a sandwich, but on occasion, I'll certainly stop by and have some chili cheese fries or a salad from the cafeteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And it's interesting. We think of your jobs as dealing with teachers, but I assume the cafeteria workers are part of your staff, as well.

Mr. CAHALL: They are. We're not directly responsible for them. We don't evaluate them because, again, we have a contract to service. You know, we collaborate and work with them.

CONAN: Okay, let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Kevin, Kevin calling us from Heidelberg in Germany.

KEVIN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

KEVIN: Yeah, one of the other challenges that we have with our overseas schools, with our American kids here, is no different than some of your other listeners is being able to find the right post-secondary fit for high school students, specifically seniors.

One of the challenges we have over here is obviously the kids just can't pick up and on the weekend go to a college in Washington state or one of the locations. Most of it they have to do here by Internet or correspondence or telephone, and that makes it a little bit - the challenge a little bit more difficult because the only time those kids can actually go back is in the summer sometimes when they have visiting.

The other principals on the line: How much interaction do you have, let's say, in Texas, with kids trying to get to school? I mean, can you send them on the weekend to other locations like that? You know, the challenge is a little bit different when we're overseas.

CONAN: Walter Jackson?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, you know, most of our kids, you know, live in the neighborhood, and they're planning to go to school, and they're coming to our schools, and so most of them are really on track to attend a state school, if you will.

So for the most part, I mean, our kids are pretty set and going to Taylor High School, and at the end of their four-year career, they're pretty, you know, set on I'm going to go to the University of Houston or UT or Rice University, or someplace like that.

CONAN: What about you, Pete Cahall?

Mr. CAHALL: We have a great college and career placement coordinator who really - and Wilson has a great reputation. So a lot of the colleges will come to us and do, you know, visits at lunch, and kids get information.

The great thing about D.C. is we have a lot of great universities, but they're all private. So, you know, a lot of our kids do go out of state.

CONAN: Well, obviously…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kevin, there in Heidelberg, where do most of your kids end up going to college?

KEVIN: Most of the kids - again, being parents of military, a lot of it may depend on where you try to find home of record and where the next post location that the parents may PCS off to. So a lot of times, we work with looking at options of where is the home of record and so they can go to state colleges. But you know, as we found in our different locations around the world, there's always a post-secondary fit. It just - the challenge is a little bit more with us, overseas.

CONAN: So they only get in-state tuition, for example, in the state in which that's the home of record?

KEVIN: For some of them, it would be home of record, but again, with the United States military, a lot of places where the spouses - I mean, the father or mother is posted, some of those states will give them in-state tuition. Florida is one example for that.

So there's a lot of different options. The challenge is just is that these kids, they can't just pick up during the school year. So a lot of them have to make those choices or make a lot of planning during the summer before the senior year and go back to the States and visit three or four or five different colleges. But it's a challenge like anyplace else, but there's always a post-secondary fit.

Hey, I was going to ask your other two listeners, along with the lunch room, how many times have you had to fix the plumbing once during the week or so like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Is that something you ever have to do, Pete Cahall?

Mr. CAHALL: No, I'm not real technical, good with my hands, but you know, I have in my career gotten, you know, up early in the morning and cleaned bathrooms because I didn't have any custodians there.

CONAN: All right, Kevin, thanks very much for the call.

KEVIN: Appreciate it. Thank you. Being a high school principal is the best job in the world, guys.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. JACKSON: I agree.

CONAN: Those God-like powers we mentioned earlier, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in, and let's go to Roscoe(ph). Roscoe's with us from Edinburgh, Virginia.

ROSCOE (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ROSCOE: Just, I worked in independent schools for 40 years, and I was a school administrator, principal in upper schools, but I was wondering what your two panelists think of school boards and working with school boards? I'm a believer in Mark Twain's quotation: "First God created the idiot for practice, then he created school boards."

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSCOE: But I'd like to know their opinion, and I'll take my answer on the air.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much, Roscoe. Walter Jackson?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, in a very large district, my superintendent deals directly with the board. So I do not have a day-to-day dealing with our board, but our board is very, very supportive of what we do in the building and for our teachers in the classrooms. So all of my dealings with our local school board has been very positive.

CONAN: Pete Cahall?

Mr. CAHALL: I think the mayor really took over the schools about two years ago when he hired the chancellor, and so I - you know, I don't have any dealings with that. Now there's an office of state superintendent.

CONAN: This is your fourth…

Mr. CAHALL: Second. This is my second year.

CONAN: I know, but this is your fourth school.

Mr. CAHALL: Yes.

CONAN: Have you had dealings with school boards…?

Mr. CAHALL: Oh yes, absolutely.

CONAN: And were they always positive?

Mr. CAHALL: Yeah, most of the time. I mean, you always have - sometimes the board members will disagree with you, but usually, hopefully, they're having those conversations with you in private and working those out.

CONAN: All right. How do you guys deal with truants, the kids who drop out? The dropout rate in this country is horrific. Pete Cahall?

Mr. CAHALL: Well, again, you know, you have to have quality instruction and programs for kids, things that they want, and then they'll come to school. You know, you do have some barriers outside, things, you know, that they have to work in order to help their parents. You know, we've got kids having kids. So you have to try to problem-solve what the issue is for that individual student to get them (unintelligible). But the first thing you have to have is something of worth that the kids want to come to school for.

CONAN: All right, and for you, Walter Jackson, how big a problem is truancy?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, it is a problem in Houston and in Alief ISC and at Taylor High School, but we do have a high school - virtual high school - where students can log on to a computer at any place once they've received a particular code for this and continue to earn their high school credits.

We also have a (unintelligible) Crossroads Night School where students can work during the day. It's a nontraditional approach for over-age kids to earn their high school diploma while working, and each second September of the month - of the year, I'm sorry - we have a reach-out-to-drop-out program where the administration and the school board and administrators all across the district, we meet up at a particular location, and we go out and knock on doors, and we welcome back those students who have dropped out of school for various reasons because most kids that are dropping out of school are not dropping out just because they hate school, but life kind of throws several challenges to them, and we have to certainly remind them that we can help them to earn their high school diploma just in some nontraditional format.

CONAN: Let's go to Karl(ph), Karl with us from Wasilla in Alaska.

KARL (Caller): Hello, good morning.

CONAN: Good morning to you. It's afternoon here, but good morning to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KARL: Yes, I'd like to talk a little bit about what research supports in the role that the principal takes in developing and leading the culture of a school.

CONAN: What do you mean by leading the culture of the school?

KARL: Every time you walk in a school, my parents and my children tell me they have a very positive response, and this makes it a nice place for kids to learn, a nice place for them to be. The principal can really take the lead in how they model behaviors, what they expect of their students in schools and how they deal with things from assessment to discipline.

CONAN: All right, Walter Jackson, the culture of the school, what's your role?

Mr. JACKSON: I totally agree, the principal sets the tone for the school. We want our school to be a climate of warmth and welcoming, and we have a code of civility that we have established - not only for our folks that work in the school, but for parents that are working with our community and that are coming in to our building. So I totally agree that the principal sets the tone, and Taylor High School is a campus where people are welcome, and people feel welcome to come, and they feel like their needs will be met when the reach the proper people that need to speak with.

CONAN: Is there a dress code at Alief Taylor?

Mr. JACKSON: There is a dress code, and I'm often quoted and kind of mocked behind my back by my students: Failure is not an option at Taylor High School, and Taylor is a no-sagging zone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: I'm a staunch person against students with the saggy pants. And so we're really strong against those kinds of things. And kids know our expectations. And, you know, oftentimes I'm mocked about it, but the kids certainly understand, and parents are very, very supportive of these standards that I have at - set at Taylor.

CONAN: Pete Cahall, what's the culture at Woodrow Wilson?

Mr. CAHALL: Well, again, I would concur with my two principal colleagues. And I think we've changed the culture, of one that is very kid and parent-friendly. Again, the parent and the students are our customers, and we need to serve them. I mean, that's why I spend the first hour of every day welcoming students into the building, welcoming staff, welcoming parents. At lunch, I push around a trash can, you know, asking kids to pick up the trash, or I pick it up for them, you know? So, I'm modeling the things that I would expect my students to do. And, you know, they really have caught on.

CONAN: And is there a no-sag zone out at Woodrow Wilson?

Mr. CAHALL: I like the idea. I like that. I should get - we should get some posters, somehow get that drawn up. Do you have those posters…

Mr. JACKSON: We have some in-house posters…

Mr. CAHALL: …Principal Jackson?

Mr. JACKSON: We have some in-house posters that we've made ourselves, but, you know, it's just part of the culture now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAHALL: Yeah. We try to enforce that. It's, you know, it's just like beating your head against the wall sometimes, though. So, but, yeah, we all -we expect the trousers to be up. We talk about it, and we remind kids frequently.

CONAN: When I was in school - quite awhile ago - but the length of somebody's hair, of a boy's hair, was a big issue. Facial hair today, Walter Jackson?

Mr. JACKSON: Facial hair is still something that our school boards feels like is - we don't want it. And so, I often have to have conversations - difficult conversations, rather - with students and parents about facial hair. Hair length on your head is not really a big issue as facial hair, but I often - I'm quoted by saying I enforce the policies that the school board makes. I did not make the policy. If you are not in favor of this policy, I suggest you speak to the powers that be to perhaps change those policies.

CONAN: And from…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAHALL: That's shocking, actually. I would never thought there would be a policy as far as facial hair. The four districts that I've been in, there hasn't anything close to that. We do have a no hat, no headgear, do-rag, bandana when you come in the building.

CONAN: What about there in Wasilla, Carl?

CARL: Specifically, when I with an elementary school. We have preschool…

CONAN: Not - facial hair is not issue there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARL: …we don't have any issues with facial hair. However, what I will share is that when I first became an educator 30 years ago, there was a lot of controversy about the idea of - we now refer to it as character education. In those days, it was values clarification, and there was a lot of issue.

But what I have learned in my 30 years is that families truly embrace and support the development of not only character in their children, but the specific skills that are reflected in that character. For example, the word of the week that we used at our school, the first week of school, was the virtue of respect. And we teach specific skills.

This is something that maybe not everybody recognizes. We shouldn't assume that children know how to behave. And so we do some very deliberate social skills teaching. In the case of respect, we talk about listening as a demonstration of respect. And we say that listening is watching the speaker, thinking about what's being said, sitting still. And these are some specific things all year long. We talk about the virtues of respect, responsibility, honesty, justice, responsibility. It's a very important and integral part of the culture of our school.

CONAN: Carl, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CARL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're doing another in our series programs, A Day in the Life. Today: school principals.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guests: They are Pete Cahall of Woodrow Wilson High School here in Washington, D.C., and Walter Jackson, principal of Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas.

And let's get another caller on the line - Rosemary, Rosemary with us from Sonoma in California.

ROSEMARY (Caller): Hello, there. I'm so pleased to hear these wonderful principals because I know how hard they work. And I was a receptionist in the principal's office at our local high school for almost 20 years. I could not believe what was expected of a principal. They are the greatest multitaskers. They are expected to be everything for everyone in the community because the high school is a microcosm of the community.

CONAN: What was the most unusual thing that you could not believe was expected of the principal?

ROSEMARY: Well, this is a rural area. Well, the principal is expected to be the plumber, the nurse. The funding in California schools is ridiculous. And I can tell you that a principal isn't paid nearly as much as what they should be. I was shocked to find out what CEOs of major companies make in comparison to our principals who are working night and day for very little money. They have to do it for the love, because they're certainly not doing for - it for the money. And they simply don't get the respect and the support that they need all of the time.

CONAN: Rosemary, I also have to tell you that as a kid who was constantly in trouble when I was in high school, the most important person at the school was the receptionist in the principal's office, because if you get in her good side, everything was a lot easier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSEMARY: Oh, yes. I used to have some heartwarming conversations with some young fellows like you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSEMARY: …and some young ladies, as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Rosemary, thanks for setting all of us straight. We appreciate the phone call.

ROSEMARY: Thank you for having this program.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. We just have a couple of minutes left. Walter Jackson, there - if there's one thing that you're going to take away from your time as principal at Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas, what it's going to be?

Mr. JACKSON: I believe it'll be that I've tried to hold true to the primary purpose of what education is in this country for all students, making certain that I have done what I could have done to help all students reach their maximum potential. I'm often quoted and laughed at for using the terminology merchants of hope. But I honestly believe as principals and as educators, we are the merchants of hope in this society. We're the prophets of enlightenment, and we're the protectors of democracy. And if we can't make our schools a better place, how are we going to expect our democracy and our society to get better?

CONAN: Well, thank you very much. Walter Jackson, principal at Alief Taylor High School in Houston, Texas, joined us today from Rice University, a studio there in Houston.

We have 30 seconds for you, Pete Cahall of the Woodrow Wilson High School here in Washington, D.C. What are you going to take away from your experience?

Mr. CAHALL: Well, again, I love my kids. I love the entire school community. It's really my passion and mission to serve young people. And people ask me why did I come to Washington, D.C., leaving in Montgomery County, Maryland, you know, and I was in a central office, cushy job, work 9:00 to 5:00, left, you know…

CONAN: In a very affluent county.

Mr. CAHALL: Yes, and decides to come down to D.C. because I believed in what the chancellor and the mayor were trying to do for - you know, if the District of Columbia, the nation's capital, schools can't be successful, then where are we as a nation in our education?

CONAN: Well, again. Thank you both for your time today.

Coming up, President Obama gives his back-to-school pep talk to students tomorrow. Many parents call it indoctrination and refused to send their kids to school. What should the president say? Should he say anything at all? 800-989-8255. Email us:

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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