First stop on Jim McCoy's tour of Northwest Intermediate School is the front step. From there he gestures to the small grove of river birches, honey locust and a lone blue spruce gracing the school's front lawn.

"There wasn't a tree out there when I came four years ago," he says. Then pointing to the large expanse of lawn interrupted only by a half-full bicycle rack, he adds, "And they wanted to put a parking lot in over there. Can you imagine that? We might as well have been a business."School should be a source of inspiration and a source of pride," says Utah's secondary principal of the year.

"The grounds should have a parklike atmosphere. Parks have a special place in the lives of people. School ought to convey that same feeling, and, of course, the first thing you see is the grounds," the principal says.

But McCoy doesn't stop at the building's entrance when pointing out special features. Plants line the halls and hang from the ceiling, along with the flags of 40 countries and an immense world map. Carpet and park benches soften what would be the institutional look of the school's foyer.

Paintings donated by Native American artist Sylvester Duchie and other Indian items, along with the works of students, decorate the home of the Warriors. A wall has been knocked out to open up the cafeteria to a commons area.

"In the same way kids have a sense of ownership for their own room, they need to have sense of ownership and pride in their school. What we are doing is developing the school climate," McCoy says.

In the beginning, McCoy heard that his vision of the school and the pride of its students was doomed to failure. Located on 11th North and 14th West, Northwest claims no affluent neighborhoods feeding into it. About half of the school's 738 students come from middle-income homes, the other half from low-income families. About 35 percent of the students are minority.

For those reasons, many Salt Lakers regard Northwest as the valley's toughest junior high school. It's an image that McCoy is working hard to overcome - and one that he says is dead wrong.

McCoy's faith in Northwest appears well founded. The place is spotless. Vandalism is almost non-existent. "These are the greatest kids in the world. I wouldn't want to be at any other school," the principal says.

But Northwest's new image can't be hung on its outward appearance alone. McCoy's focus on "school climate" also embraces academics and discipline. He likes to say that school should be Harvard, West Point and Disneyland rolled into one - a marriage of academics, self-discipline and excitement.

Northwest students can get only four grades - A, B, C or I (incomplete). "I" means non-mastery of the material, so a student with an "I" must attend an extra, or eighth hour, class on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

By a vote of the teachers, Northwest has tacked an extra period of 35 minutes onto the end of the school day on those days. Students with "I" - or students who want extra help in their studies or extra computer time - can work with teachers in classes of 15, instead of the normal 30 to 35.

In the summer, the Northwest Academy, the renamed summer school, also tries to meet the needs of students needing remediation and those wanting the extras such as computers and drama.

The academic emphasis has paid off. Before the eighth hour was adopted, 20 to 25 percent of all grades were "D's" or "F's." Today, only 5 percent of Northwest students earn "I's" and are required to attend the eighth hour.

But it isn't just the additional study time that McCoy credits for the academic improvement. The principal uses an extensive student incentive program to reinforce academic achievement - and positive behavior. Last year, the State Office of Education called McCoy's program a model for the state.

Northwest students earn merit slips for everything from picking up trash to consistently doing their homework. The slips go into a box in the office for the principal's daily "Meal of Fortune" drawing. The winner receives a coupon redeemable at a variety of local fast-food restaurants.

McCoy also roams the halls continually, passing out his "Sunshine Notes" when he catches a student red-handed in a good deed.

Success of the incentive program hinges on a partnership with local businesses. Part of the McCoy philosophy is the school is in the community and therefore the community should be involved with the school. Northwest has a long list of businesses that donate free food, drinks and other items.

Perhaps Northwest's biggest benefactor is Morris Travel. When the travel agency has unbooked seats on their flights to the West Coast, it allows Northwest to send students and their parents free. They fly to Los Angeles, for example, eat lunch in the airport cafeteria and come back on the same plane that afternoon.

The flights are used as rewards for "Turnaround," students who have made significant improvement, and "On Course," students who are performing well academically. Morris Travel also sends the Student of the Year and his or her parents to Disneyland or Disney World.

McCoy estimates 200 students and their parents participated in the flights last year. "For a lot of the kids, the first flight they ever take is with us," he says.

While the accent is on positive behavior, there are consequences for breaking the well-defined rules. McCoy is the first to classify Northwest as a strict school.

Last year Northwest received unwelcome publicity when several students were not allowed to come to school in Spuds MacKenzie T-shirts. McCoy is not apologetic. Northwest has a rule against wearing clothing that advertises alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

The school's drug prevention efforts were recognized by the U.S. Department of Education last spring, and a plaque, presented to the school's student body president by Nancy Reagan in White House ceremonies, now hangs at Northwest.

His colleague, Northwest assistant principal Rosemary Baron, thinks all of McCoy's programs add up to a humanistic approach that works well with students. "He is always out in the halls meeting with students. His message is that he wants them to succeed, and that's why he is successful."