I hoofed it up the sidewalk to Bell Middle School in my heels, alongside preteens in maroon and navy polos. “Plenty of time. Plenty of time,” the vice principal reassured us as we poured into the school, a vast spread of tile and stucco atop a hill that faces a dark, distant wash of mountains.

There are more than 1,100 students at Bell, a diverse school in the southeastern corner of San Diego Unified where roughly two-thirds of students are poor enough to eat lunch for free.

And I was in charge for a day.

I had been tapped for Principal for a Day, an event that aims to bring business and community leaders into schools to better understand the work of principals. I was hoping I might actually make decisions in that day — not just tag along.

The real principal at Bell Middle, Michael Dodson, wasn’t so sure about that. But he let me spend the morning with him to see how Bell is working and how he hopes it could work better. The few hours I spent with him gave me a new understanding of the inner workings of the district’s budget cuts, how hard it is to get preteen boys to tuck in their shirts and the deeper meanings of student dietary restrictions:

  • 7:20 a.m.: The day began with a budget briefing from a staff member who gave Dodson the rundown on the district’s spending freeze. Coffee with the principal, a traditional way to get parents involved, would be scaled back to … sitting with the principal. “We just can’t afford it anymore,” Dodson said.

It’s not the only place the economic pinch has hit Bell. Because the school district is slowing down work on its $2.1 billion school construction bond, repairs and air conditioning for Bell are being delayed. Its blue and aquamarine tile façade is chipped; paint is peeling on the baseboards in Dodson’s office.

Dodson worries about how children will perform on state tests in the spring, when the bungalows heat up. The school district has prioritized technology instead, such as the interactive whiteboards a teacher used to sketch out fractions in a math class. But the other fixes will be delayed for three years from 2011 to 2014.

Additional programs have been scaled back. Students who don’t make the grade are being held back at their home schools, instead of going to a special program that ultimately proved too expensive to sustain. Bell is trying to start a foundation to gather donations, something that schools in wealthier areas are used to doing to cover even basic costs such as copying paper.

  • 8 a.m.: We ventured out to observe classrooms. Dodson took notes on a pad labeled “From the Desk of Michael O. Dodson” and left the feedback for teachers as we walked. In a class for gifted and talented students, children had to write something incorporating their vocabulary words. One girl styled hers as an instant message conversation: “You’re so cool. Like abundance cool,” she wrote. Another girl wrote, “The amount of throw-up on the floor was abundant.”
  • 8:30 a.m.: Dodson stopped to talk to a child sitting outside a classroom. He’d been kicked out for disrupting class. Bell has a policy called “Be Good or Be Gone,” which basically means that if you repeatedly misbehave, you don’t get sent to another classroom to be babysat — you’re gone. The school ended in-school suspension, partly to avoid grouping misbehaving children together on campus and partly because it couldn’t afford to staff it anymore. Dodson said behavior has improved under the rules.

“You can’t get it together today?” he asked the boy. “Then you probably don’t need to be here today.” The boy gingerly headed back into class after his reprimand.

  • 9 a.m.: We stopped in a classroom where two teachers were working together to show children how to multiply fractions. Co-teaching is one strategy used to help teach children with disabilities in the same classrooms as their peers without disabilities. When schools do it right, it’s almost impossible to tell which children have disabilities or which teacher specializes in special education.

As we sat observing the class, one child asked Dodson, “Is that the boss lady?”

I was thrilled. Usually children assume I’m either a high school student or a substitute teacher. “Boss lady” is a definite step up, though trying to boss Dodson around seemed like a very, very bad idea.

  • 10:15 a.m.: The principal settled in with a packet of paperwork provided by his assistant. One worksheet was for a grant. Dodson scratched his head at some of the questions. “I don’t even know what half of these acronyms mean,” he muttered.

His assistant, Janice Caravajal, handed him neon folders labeled “Dodson Action” full of papers to sign: signing off on attendance forms, allowing an employee to leave early, reviewing state findings about textbook availability (Bell got a “good” rating) and plunking down some cash to buy “Golf Digest” magazine for a student fundraiser. The barrage of paperwork was only one of the bureaucratic tasks Dodson had to complete: He gets hundreds of e-mails a day.

Piled alongside an office shelf loaded with binders on No Child Left Behind, school district policies, grants and procedures were a stack of scooters and skateboards that Dodson confiscated from children this week. They were so sad, “they looked like the Maytag repairman,” Dodson quipped.

  • 10:45 a.m.: As children hurried to the lunch lines, Dodson stopped a boy to tell him to tuck in his shirt for the umpteenth time that day. Bell has a strict dress code of navy and maroon polo shirts, tucked into black or khaki pants. It isn’t technically a uniform, but it is the closest thing Dodson can do under school district policies. A few minutes later, Dodson stopped to talk to two girls with headscarves who were carrying trays back from the lunch line.

“How come she has two burgers and you have none?” Dodson asked the girls.

“We traded because she can’t have meat,” one explained.

“Wait. If she can’t eat meat, why can you?” he asked.

“Becaaaaause,” one girl said with a tone of I-can’t-believe-you-don’t-know-this, “she’s Sunni and I’m Shia.”

“She’s Arabic and I’m Somali,” the other girl elaborated.

Then the two linked arms and ran off singing Taylor Swift lyrics and giggling: “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers!”

Dodson watched them run off. “Well, I learned something today,” he said.

  • 11 a.m.: I finally got to make one decision at Bell: Seventh graders John and Mustafa had been pestering Dodson all day between classes about something. It turned out they wanted to stage a re-enactment of the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video during lunchtime. Jacko nostalgia apparently transcends generations, even if you weren’t alive to see it the first time around.

Dodson decided that this was a decision I probably wouldn’t screw up too badly. The boys wanted to recruit children from both lunch periods to rehearse; I turned down that idea because they’d miss too much class. But I told them if they kept rehearsals to one lunch, I’d approve it. And they’d better believe I’d be back to see it happen. Permission granted.

They glanced at Dodson.

“Don’t look at me!” he said. “She’s the principal for a day!”

“Yeah,” Mustafa said, “but you’re principal next week.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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