For defenders of America's embattled public school systems, the news was bad but not unexpected. A report last May by the National Commission on Excellence in Education told them what they already knew: that teachers are poorly trained and underpaid, that courses are all too often undemanding and frivolous, and that schools are pumping out students woefully deficient in language and writing skills. But the situation is not universally grim. According to a Carnegie Foundation report published last fall, our foundering educational system is beginning to show signs of reform, and a small but encouraging number of high schools are pulling away from the pack in their race to excel. The key in every instance is leadership—a principal who won't let his school be less than the best.

A case in point is John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, New York. A concrete fortress housing nearly 5,000 students, of whom half are Hispanic and 30 percent black, Kennedy is the fief of Principal Robert Mastruzzi, a cheerleading extrovert who believes the prerequisite to educational excellence is convincing kids to believe in their school. "Our philosophy is that these kids are entitled to the very best," he says. "I tell the staff the most important thing is not what they know about calculus or physics, but that they convey to each kid that he is important. If kids feel they are in an environment where people care about them, they will come. And once you have control over a student body that wants to be there, it's easy to implement solid educational programs."

Attendance is an obsession with Mastruzzi, and he lures students with whatever incentives he can. Each month homerooms with the best attendance records are rewarded with Big Mac certificates donated by McDonald's. Peer pressure is also employed. Students who habitually cut classes are assigned guardian angels—rehabilitated truants who try to steer them back onto the straight and narrow. "When one kid sees the other kid failing, he gets on his case," explains Mastruzzi, 56, a former physical education instructor. "If a kid feels he is sliding, he has somebody to go to." Attendance at Kennedy averages 80 percent, far above other New York schools with a high proportion of minority students.

Mastruzzi's problems are common to countless urban schools: deteriorating facilities, overcrowded classrooms, uninspired students from troubled families. Kennedy offers a yearlong minischool for potential dropouts and has succeeded in moving most of them back into the mainstream. But the Kennedy neighborhood is infested with gangs, and Mastruzzi doesn't hesitate to crack down when he has to. "If a kid we feel is salvageable gets into trouble, we will bring every resource into play," he says. "But I will not tolerate weapons, drugs, assaults or any bum who cannot conform." He concludes bluntly: "Every kid cannot be saved."

The Bronx-born son of a shoe factory worker, Mastruzzi is a graduate of New York University. He is married to an elementary school teacher and has a 25-year-old daughter. Though he earns a salary of $55,000 after 33 years as a teacher or principal, his school receives less than $40,000 a year for new school expenses, including supplies and equipment. Of necessity, he has become a master of improvisation. "I subscribe to the theory that you cannot run a school effectively without breaking at least one rule a day," he says. "I don't even want to ask whether it's legal to sell soda and pretzels on campus to subsidize the school newspaper. I really don't care because it's in the kids' best interest. But it's sad when kids have to do this kind of thing several months a year to earn money for projects that they are rightfully entitled to." Last year the school's student government raised $74,000 for extracurricular programs at Kennedy.

They could do nothing, however, about raising teacher salaries, which Mastruzzi regards as disgracefully low. "Good teachers really make a school," he says. "But I ride the subway and see ads: 'Join the Sanitation Department for $19,000.' My beginning teachers aren't making $15,000."

Pinchpenny resources aside, Mastruzzi has concluded after 12 years in the principal's office that it's the intangibles that make Kennedy work. "It's one of the few schools that retains what was fairly common years ago—tradition and spirit," he says. "I love kids. Their minds are open, and if we gave them half a chance, we could develop an outstanding adult population 10 years from now. If you're going to have a true democratic society, kids in places like New York City should be entitled to the same education offered in the suburbs. I refuse to have my kids be second-class citizens."