Halfway through fifth period, Christine Black stood in the middle of a vast ground-floor hallway in George Washington High.

At either end, small knots of students clustered with no apparent destination or permission to be out of class. But the fact that seven or so students were lingering actually represented good news - their ranks were down sharply from the congregation that likely would have gathered the week before, said Black, a new coprincipal of the school.

"Still," she said, "the hallways should be clear."

George Washington has earned notoriety this year for its turbulent climate, with frequent fights, widespread community concern, and, most recently, a teacher's assault grabbing headlines.

But those inside say that the full picture is more nuanced, and that it's shifting, with new leadership and a back-to-basics approach to student discipline in an already-enormous school that enrolled almost 300 new students this fall without staff increases to support them.

To Black and her coprincipal, Francine Deal, the first steps in turning around the 1,800-student school are the simplest, they said one day last week: Hats off. Cellphones out of sight. No admission to school after 10 a.m. without a parent present. Those precepts, they said, were too loose in the past.

"We have to get rules in place as quickly and strictly as possible," said Deal, who like Black is a retired city principal expected to lead Washington until the end of the school year.

Black and Deal were appointed to the school on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast on Dec. 8, after a Washington teacher was assaulted by three teens who burst into his classroom, looking for a student. District officials removed principal Gene Jones, who has been temporarily reassigned to an office job.

Washington has struggled to absorb its new students, taken on by Jones as part of a district mandate to open high-performing schools to students from across the city. The school's freshman class alone has 700 students.

Most students still show up eager to learn, staff say, but for a time, the troublemakers seemed to have the upper hand.

"Kids would come and go at will," Deal said. "It's a big school; we don't have enough personnel to monitor all of the doors." At lunchtime, dozens of Washington students would hang out at a gas station across the street.

Some classes are oversize. Teacher vacancies remain, exacerbated by a district-wide problem of attracting enough substitute teachers. And like schools around the city, Washington couldn't afford enough of the support staffers who traditionally kept order in hallways.

In prior years, the school had 13 aides to monitor lunchrooms and hallways. This year, even with the increased student body, it had five, one aide said - and just four for a time after someone quit.

"It was insane," said the aide, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. "You could commit a crime, or do something stupid, and there were no consequences for your action. The kids were scared - between the fights and the fire alarms and the actual violence, they didn't know what to do."

Black was clear: Tighter rules alone won't fix Washington.

"We're hoping for more resources," she said.

Deal and Black, who each have more than 40 years in education, have requested that teachers stand in the hallways during class changes to help move students to the right place. They realize that's a big request in a school where adults and children have legitimate concerns for their safety.

"The staff is still fearful, but I have to lead by example," Black said. "My heart goes out to anyone who was injured."

Heather Ward, a special-education teacher and one of the school's union leaders, said that while much needs to change, she sees encouraging signs.

"Dr. Black and Mrs. Deal are walking around the building," Ward said. "They're asking teachers if they needed anything. We're getting a response."

The Washington aide who spoke in confidence said real change is visible in the school cafeteria, once a major trouble spot.

For the first time all year, the aide was able to issue a suspension to a frequent troublemaker.

"It's a big change, but we need one," the aide said. "This year has been brutal."

The two principals have worked in tough situations before. Washington, they said, feels different. "There's no apathy here," Deal said. "That's unique for a situation like this. People want to do something."

Yes, the climate has been tumultuous, said Jude Husein, Washington's student body president, an aspiring lawyer with a schedule full of Advanced Placement classes.

But, she said, that buries the story of a school with real strengths to build upon - clubs, sports, challenging courses, students poised for college or graduating with industry certifications already in hand.

"Washington has so many things to offer," Husein, 18, said last week. "We just need the proper funds and supervision and structure. We all deserve a good learning environment."

Does Husein feel safe at school?

"Slowly but surely, I'm starting to again," she said. "We have a long way to go, but I don't want people to think it's a bad school."

Christian Quemuel, too, is frustrated by the "unfair reputation" Washington has earned, the senior said. What about the well-established peer mentoring program he loves? What about the strong career and technical-education courses and Philadelphia School District's largest business-education club, which saw 95 of its students collect prizes at citywide competition this month?

"They kept saying, 'George Washington, first place,' " said Quemuel, who took home a trophy. "We had a lot of school pride."

The attention has been tough, Quemuel and others said. But the tumult isn't just affecting students' morale.

Sheryl Kirby, the Washington teacher heading the school's career and technical-education department, is trying to raise $25,000 for registration and travel expenses so the winners of the recent business competition can attend regionals in Hershey, Pa.

Usually, Washington's busy student-run store, which stocks snacks and school-branded uniforms and other gear, turns enough profit to cover such activities.

But the store closed amid Washington's troubles.

Kirby, who has put together only $5,000 for the competition, is hopeful the store can reopen after winter break, but that leaves her less than a month to raise the rest of the cash.

"These kids," she said, "deserve to go. We have such good kids."