By RACHEL MONAHAN
Sunday, May 25th 2008, 4:00 AM
Principal Juan Mendez
When his toughest students cross the stage at graduation for their diploma each June, their reaction shows East Williamsburg Principal Juan Méndez just how important his work has been: They break down in tears.
"To me, that has come to symbolize youngsters who never thought they were going to make it," he said. "They gave us a hard time. We never gave up on them."
More than 10 years ago, Méndez, principal of Enterprise, Business and Technology High School, left prestigious Stuyvesant High School to start the school and improve the lot of students who weren't being given a chance.
"I believe all children are gifted," he said. "I believe the children across the East River deserve equal opportunity."
Among the city's first small schools designed to replace a large, failing one, Mendez's school on Grand St. this month appeared on the state list of high-performing schools for the first time.
The latest city figures show an 81% four-year graduation rate for the school. The old Eastern District High School it replaced had graduated only 25% of its students in 1996.
The school of 825 students is roughly 60% Hispanic and 95% minority. More than 60% of its students are boys, who - at least at other schools - are less likely to graduate on time.
With Méndez's school as an early model, it's easy to see why the Department of Education would want to break up other large schools. "It's just one of the many steps that need to be taken," Méndez said.
He assigns students to a guidance counselor for all four years, so they get to know an adult well. As a line of defense against dropping out, Méndez employes a full-time attendance teacher.
At "family meetings" for students identified as at-risk, he gently makes the case for education.
"I always treat students like young adults, like I would want to be treated," he said.
He even cites U.S. Labor Department statistics showing more education means a higher salary later on to convince students and sometimes their parents that they should stay.
Méndez has extended school time to help students academically. Students can get extra tutoring after school and go on Saturdays for at least the eight weeks before the Regents exams.
But the focus is not always on academics. This school year, a senior traveled to Antarctica on a grant to study global warming. The Model UN team traveled to the Netherlands. There's a robotics team and a poetry club among many other after-school activities.
"They tend to get in trouble when we don't engage them," said Méndez.
But making the school safe and secure with clear rules has been an important part of his work.
Teachers keep discipline between classes by standing in the doorways to greet students. The assistant principals stand at the four corners of the school's floor. "Walk and talk," Méndez reminds students.
Among the honors Méndez has received, one stands out. Many of the school's teachers have entrusted the school with their children.
Francisco Cabrera, a computer-science teacher who graduated from the old Easter District High School in 1981, sent his daughter to Enterprise, Business and Technology. She will graduate next month.
"I could see for myself that the teachers prepare their students," said Cabrera.