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A better atmosphere at South Phila. High

SIGNS WITH the phrase "Safe Haven" written in English, Spanish and Mandarin are taped onto nearly every doorway in South Philadelphia High School.

SIGNS WITH the phrase "Safe Haven" written in English, Spanish and Mandarin are taped onto nearly every doorway in South Philadelphia High School.

School officials say the signs are there to remind students that their school is a place where they ought to feel safe and secure.

The school, which drew national attention when a group of Asian students came under attack last December, unwittingly became the school district's poster child for racial tension and administrative ineptitude.

For months, the school was under a spotlight: Asian students staged a weeklong boycott and march in response to their abuse; a federal probe was launched, and the school's principal resigned when it came to light that she lacked the proper credentials.

Recently, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the school staff was racially divided and had failed to properly monitor the actions of the students.

But many at the school say that things have changed - relations among staff and students have improved since the saga began, and many have a new outlook for the school's future.

"We're jacked," said Dean Coder, a math teacher and union representative. "Let's be positive and let's get things done."

The faint sounds of voices coming from classrooms wafted down a hallway one recent morning. A lone security officer was stationed on the first floor, looking for stragglers.

"How are you doing, young man?" interim principal Ozzie Wright asked one boy.

"Good," he replied, smiling.

Wright, an amiable administrator hugged teachers and exchanged high-fives with students with an ease that suggests he'd done this before.

It's that attitude that has boosted morale among the faculty, who have for the most part rallied behind Wright.

He assumed leadership after LaGreta Brown resigned when news broke this month that she had an inactive principal certification. (The Inquirer reported last night that Brown is still on the district's payroll, using a combination of personal and sick time until June 1, when she'll report to district headquarters.)

"It's like night and day," Coder said, referring to the difference between Wright and Brown. "He's really listening to the staff."

He's also met with a number of students through what Wright called "focus groups," in which he tries to address individual concerns.

"We want the school to belong to the students, not the other way around," he said.

District officials say there's been a 39 percent decrease in overall assaults between this school year and last.

Officials reported 13 student assaults between Dec. 4 and last Friday. Figures for the same period last year were not readily available.

Officials credit the decline to a bump in resources.

Ackerman took flak for spending $689,000 to install 126 cameras soon after the incident, which she boasted cover almost every corner of the school.

Inside the school's security office, an officer surveyed 12 large screens, showing images of various locations of the school.

Some of the cameras can swivel 360 degrees and capture images four to five blocks in any direction, said school police Sgt. Robert Samuels, one of several officers assigned to the school after the December attacks. He credits the new system with having subdued student misconduct.

"Approximately every 20 feet is a camera," he said as his colleague demonstrated by flicking to images of stairwells, hallways, the school's roof and cafeteria. "It decreases the activities of the students because they don't want to be seen."

Ten cameras are stationed inside the cafeteria, a hot spot for trouble, and one of the locations where Asian students were jumped by black students last winter.

"Every day it gets better," said Keith Johnson, one of two climate managers stationed at the cafeteria. "This is what they've learned to get accustomed to."

Two noontime aides and climate managers are stationed at each of the three lunch lines to thwart any deviant behavior, Wright said, and there are 14 permanent and part-time security officers.

But Cecilia Chen, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, whose group is behind a probe by the Department of Justice, said bad behavior persists.

"There was one incident in which a student was pushed out of line and called a 'chink,' " she said.

The group also filed a complaint with the state's Human Relations Commission this month.

"The cameras have helped a little bit. They still don't feel safe at school," Chen said, referring to about 20 students she represents. "The manner in which the school is handling incidents of harassment is not really effective."

But during an assembly of students in the 50/50 Club - which pairs immigrant and other students to expose them to other cultures - most of about 100 black and Asian students raised their hands to say they were pleased with the direction the school was going.

"Do you feel the school is safer inside and out?" Wright asked.

"Yes, it's safer because there's a lot of police outside," one student said through a translator.

"It helped us interact with different cultures, different acts of life," said a black student. "It made our school more unified."

More foreign-born students have recently joined organizations in the school, said Jennifer Chiu, who manages Project Bridging Cultures, which connects immigrant and native-born students through various exercises.

"Students may have seen a program going on and they didn't know if they could or should join," she said. "But now they're getting the confidence to do it."