How school chief turned district around. For Cortines, communication was key to San Jose success

There were lots of good reasons not to want the job of superintendent of schools in San Jose in 1984. Ramon Cortines knew them. That's why he had his name taken off the list of candidates after a round of interviews. The district was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was fending off a desegregation order. And it was still smarting from a strike two years before.

``I saw a demoralized community, parents, teachers, and administrators,'' Mr. Cortines says. ``I saw a very beleaguered central office. . . . I couldn't get a handle on the fiscal picture. I wasn't sure I could get the team going, that there was anything there to rebuild.''

Ironically, Cortines was on the job by May.

Now, a year later, the bankruptcy has been avoided. Desegregation plans are being drawn up. The school district, which serves just over 30,000 students, is on the rise, and Cortines is getting much of the credit.

What made him put his name back on the list?

``Oh, the challenge,'' he says, with a broad grin. ``I like doing these kinds of things in education. . . . I like making it work.''

The San Jose Unified School District began a downward spiral in the late 1970s, according to observers. Its troubles were fueled by fiscal problems caused by the passage of tax-cutting Proposition 13, declining enrollments, and a growing minority population.

Cortines -- who has been involved in education for 28 years, including 11 as superintendent in Pasadena, Calif. -- has stopped that spiral.

``Given the depth of the problems, we can't solve them in one year,'' says Rosaleen Zisch, president of the district's PTA council. ``And it can't be done by replacing one person, but he has us on track.''

Cortines himself is quick to share credit: ``The employees in this district solved the bankruptcy, not the administration,'' he says, explaining that they willingly delayed a negotiated pay raise to avoid court proceedings.

After ticking off the accomplishments of his first year -- including attendance policies, bilingual education plans, curriculum reform, and the writing of a behavior handbook -- he adds: ``In my first year we have at least started all the goals I set for my three years here. Most of them are accomplished. It is not because of me. It is the staff.''

What Cortines found when he arrived in San Jose was a district ripe for reform and eager to act. What he has brought, say those who work with him, is leadership.

``People were looking for a fresh start,'' says Jean Brady, president of the school board. In fact, four of the five board members who hired Cortines were themselves serving their first terms.

``To be a leader you have to have people who are willing to follow,'' says Ms. Zisch. ``We were ready for new leadership.''

Cortines wasted no time in San Jose.

He began building community support by initiating informal ``chats'' at neighborhood schools, meeting with real estate people (who equate improving schools with rising property values), and pulling local businesses into active involvement in classrooms. Community involvement in the schools is key to their success and to the success of the community, he says.

``You cannot have a good city and a good community and a good economic base if you don't have good schools,'' he says. ``I want everybody to buy into the renaissance of this school system.''

He also immediately made it clear he was setting high academic standards for the schools, getting rid of the much-publicized video games at San Jose High School during his first week and replacing them with advanced-placement courses.

Cortines is not afraid to speak his mind, a trait that has gotten him into a number of disagreements but has for the most part won him the trust of district employees and parents.

Establishing the integrity of the administration and of the school system itself has been an important part of the year's work, he says.

``I'm open,'' he says. ``I communicate both the bad and the good. And not after the fact, but before. I'm stubborn, too . . . until I'm convinced I'm wrong.''

Communicating the good has been especially important in San Jose this year. The district's poor reputation is not deserved, he says, and he has taken it as part of his job to emphasize what is good about the district.

According to Cortines, the racial isolation in the district due to housing patterns is best addressed by improving the quality of education in all the district's schools, not by busing. He hopes the court will allow the district to continue to work on desegregation with so-called ``magnet'' schools.

If all the schools in the district offer high-quality education, the neighborhoods will integrate themselves and the schools in turn, he says.

The consequences of turning around the San Jose Unified School District reach beyond the narrow 17-mile strip of land that it serves, he says, because it is an urban school system with all the problems of urban systems across the country.

``And it has a chance of making it if they continue in the direction they are going,'' Cortines says with a visionary glint in his eye. ``It has a chance of providing leadership and direction for other school systems.''

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